There are few pleasures simpler or greater than excellent bread and butter. Particularly when the butter is creamy and salted, and the bread is a freshly baked Danish bolle, or roll, available in numerous varieties: peppered with walnuts and dried fruit, sprinkled with poppy or pumpkin seeds, flecked with strands of carrot or beetroot… These always have the most luscious dense, slightly sour crumb, and are deliciously chewy and wholesome, particularly when slathered in the aforementioned butter. I should also mention that the Danes even have a special word, tandsmør, which literally means ‘tooth butter’ and describes a piece of bread so thickly spread with the good stuff that you leave toothmarks when you bite into it. This essentially describes the diet to which I have been rigorously adhering since I moved here.Read More
Sometimes people ask me why I love to travel. By ‘people’ I mean my mother, and by ‘sometimes’ I mean while I’m in the process of stuffing my 65 litre backpack into the freezer so all the Burmese bedbugs it contains can shuffle off this mortal coil amidst tubs of ice cream and frozen peas, or while I’m approaching my eleventh hour sleeping under a foil blanket on the floor of Stansted Airport waiting to be allowed to leave because a kind gentleman on my flight home mentioned that he’d put a bomb in the hold of the aircraft and apparently the police have to look into things like this, and it takes rather a lot of time. Time that trickles onwards in slow, sluggish gulps as you try and make the gratification from a crustless white bread sandwich endure for the entire night, and become far better acquainted with the minutiae of a Ryanair boarding gate than you ever thought possible, or desirable.Read More
Vilana cake is an unusual sweet from the beautiful tiny volcanic island of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, and is named after the ‘vilana’, or tin pot, in which it is traditionally baked. Thanks to its sub-tropical climate, La Gomera boasts fabulous produce – avocadoes, fresh fish, bananas, tomatoes – but the region is best known for its potato recipes, making the most of the island’s flavoursome root vegetables which arrived there shortly after the conquest of America. This simple, hearty cake incorporates mashed potato into its moist, buttery crumb, along with other key ingredients from the island: almonds, spice and dried fruit.Read More
When my boyfriend and I arrived at our hotel in Crete this summer after a chilly 3.15am start, a long flight and a fraught attempt to navigate the Greek roads in an unfamiliar hire car, I was elated. My body hummed with intense joy. It wasn’t the sight of the empty blue pool, its rippled surface mirroring the radiant sun, nor the distant glow of the Mediterranean on the horizon. It wasn’t the sight of our pastel painted balcony, tangled with grape vines laden with translucent, plum-coloured fruit. It wasn’t even the knowledge that the bar would still serve us a huge Greek salad and a chunk of crusty bread despite it being far past lunchtime. No: my eyes swept breathlessly over the pool, the landscaped gardens and the cloudless sky and instead landed on the quince tree.Read More
My arrival in Indonesia was not under the most pleasant circumstances. My plane from Borneo was delayed for nine hours, leaving me stranded at (probably) Malaysia’s tiniest airport after all the shops shut with nothing to eat except for the complementary KFC offered by the AirAsia team when it became clear that, despite the assurances of the man in uniform waiting at the gate that the plane was ‘not delayed’ (he maintained this brave pretence for a good three hours after the time when the plane was supposed to have taken off), the plane was clearly not taking us anywhere anytime soon. I made friends with three very funny Malaysian boys who coaxed me intro trying some of their KFC and found my reluctance absolutely hilarious. I had to cave, after about seven hours. I was expecting this crossing over into the dark side to be sinfully delicious, to initiate me into the guilty pleasures of fast food that I have, for so long, abstemiously avoided. In actual fact, I ate the withered, flabby, tasteless chicken burger in dismay, finding it tasted of very little except the hard-to-place ubiquitous flavour of mass-produced spongy carbs and soggy batter.Read More
Let's be realistic. No matter how long it sits on my 'to-do' list, I am never going to get round to delivering that lengthy, nuanced, insightful, evocatively-written, anecdote-peppered, florid prose masterpiece that is 'Elly's travels around Thailand' on the blog. I think I exhausted myself for life in that area when I wrote an almost book-length post on Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago, and have never had the inclination to repeat the effort. I keep a hand-written travel journal and simply cannot find it in me to take the time to transcribe it for the benefits of the internet. But, since we're all obsessed with lists and bite-size chunks of information these days, I thought I would deliver a Buzzfeed-style recap of my trip that cuts out the boring parts and gets straight to the valuable, the memorable, the gastronomic...and the cat-related. Because I've heard the internet loves cats too.
P.S. Scroll down to the bottom for accommodation/restaurant recommendations.Read More
If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.Read More
I haven't updated this blog in a while; summer is always a busy time and although a lot of luscious cooking does get done, it somehow rarely makes it onto the internet except in the form of quick Facebook photos that either bear one of two captions: OMGYUM, or 'Yeah, I know right.' So I thought I'd take a moment to share some of my holiday photos from my trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in April. There aren't many of food, because a) they are all camera phone photos and so not aesthetically beautiful and b) I basically ate the same thing every day: rice and beans, plantain, and some form of protein. Which was nice but resulted in me going out for a pizza one night, something I vowed never to do while abroad anywhere other than Italy. It was an excellent trip involving beautiful jungle, zip-lining oh so high above said jungle while screaming at the top of my lungs, lots of wild swimming, papaya, horse riding, mojitos on tropical islands, wildlife, a couple of earthquakes, some turtles, boat trips, and unfortunately a very nasty incident involving 387 bedbug bites and a traumatic missed flight home...but let's forget that part and focus on the nice. See below.Read More
Before I even go into the wild and wonderful merits of this beautiful dish, let’s just revel for a second in the fact that it’s called ‘amok’. Apparently this is simply a Cambodian term for cooking a curry in banana leaves, but I don’t think we use the word ‘amok’ enough in English and so let’s take a moment and think about how we can incorporate it more into our lives.
Good. Now you’ve done that, let me tell you about the beautiful amok.Read More
1. Central American food.
I spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this April, and although the prospect of rice and beans for every meal did start to get a little tedious (never before have I found myself going out for a pizza while abroad somewhere that isn't Italy...oh the shame), I am a fan of this simple yet hearty, wholesome, bolstering combination of ingredients. Rice and beans (all the better if fried with a little spice), fried plantain (sweeter and more caramelised in Costa Rica, like bananas, while crispier and more starchy in Nicaragua, like potato cakes), tortillas (soft and nutty, unlike the pallid flavourless things we buy in packets over here), and some form of protein: eggs for breakfast; fish, steak or chicken for lunch. You might also get some fresh cheese and/or avocado if you're lucky, and pico de gallo: a tangy relish of ripe tomatoes, onions and coriander. Perfect for breakfast and lunch, though I did crave a bit more variety for dinner. Luckily, there was ceviche to satisfy that requirement.Read More
The moments you remember most fondly from travelling are often not quite those you’d expect to recall or to take such a place in your heart. I have many wonderful memories from my recent trip to south east Asia: spotting an orang utan in the wild in the heart of the Borneo jungle; immersing myself in the sights, sounds and scents of one of Penang’s biggest hawker markets; snorkelling in turquoise waters off the coast of Sabah; walking through lush rice terraces in Java surrounded by papaya trees. And yet one of the moments I remember best, and that fills me most with a tranquil sense of happiness, is one that is comparatively trivial.Read More
“Oh right. Are you going for work then?”
“No, just for fun.”
“Oh, OK. So you have family or something out there?”
“No, nothing like that, I’m just going for a holiday.”
“Oh…so like, is it something to do with your PhD?”
My recent trip to Iceland seems to have perplexed more than a few people. I’ve been asked all of the above, plus a few more questions, as people attempt to determine the logical reason for my heading off to somewhere that’s a little bit off the mainstream tourist radar. Or perhaps they were just trying to grasp a rational motive for my jetting off to the frozen north just as York was beginning to heat up and become bathed in radiant sunshine.
I have to admit, I wondered the same thing myself as I stepped off the plane to gusts of freezing wind and stinging sleet, to skies greyer than a naval warship and a landscape bleaker than a morning without breakfast. On the bus ride to our hotel, I marvelled at the expanse of uniform moss, scrub and black soil, at the formidable-looking waves licking the rugged shore around us. I huddled into my goose-down jacket, which I had put away for the summer in York and had had to retrieve for the trip, adjusted my sheepskin earmuffs and braced myself for the cold days ahead.
Cold they were, and miserable at times, but this is a country that doesn’t need sunshine and balmy evenings to bring its magic to the fore. Yes, Iceland looks beautiful in the bright, clear morning sunshine (we were lucky enough to glimpse a few hours of it the morning we left), when the snow-covered mountains radiate a frosty grandeur and the sky and sea blend together in one uniform shade of blinding azure; but it is equally splendid, and somehow seems more comfortable, when its massive natural wonders and geographical marvels are silhouetted against a muted backdrop of greys and browns, hazes of drizzle, assaulting gusts of wind.
“In Iceland there’s no such thing as weather,” our taxi driver told us, “just examples.” This is a country hardened towards extremes of temperature and the capricious whims of mother nature, who, with a tendency towards hyperbole, has shaped its marvellous, and at times surreal, landscape.
We spent three days in Reykjavik, the adorably compact capital. An aerial view of the city presents you with something that more resembles a model town, perhaps built out of lego, than anything real. The houses are all painted in bright pastel shades, colours you might associate with a row of beach huts rather than dwellings built to withstand the cold and rain. Arriving in the city in the grey damp, they were a welcome burst of brightness.
Reykjavik, for me, was a curious mix of seaside down and ski resort. A few minutes takes you from the centre of town – straight streets, Parisian and Danish-style cafes, modern shops selling clothes, homeware, books, all of it exuding smart Scandinavian chic – to the harbour, where fishing boats sit idly in front of the glorified huts that house some of the city’s best restaurants, and the sweet scent of fresh seafood lingers in the air. You are cradled on two sides by mountains, lurking dappled grey across the distant sea. You stroll past ice cream cafes, shop windows filled with thick fur and wool garments, trendy bars and coffee shops, restaurants advertising their ocean-based fare. The centre of the city is tiny, easily explored in a few hours. Step into one of the uber-cool cafes and you could be in mainland Europe; step outside, and the freezing May weather reminds you that you are not.
“We’re not cool enough to be here,” was a niggling feeling frequently voiced over our three-night trip. It’s hard to be any more eloquent about it: Reykjavik is just cool. Every café or bar we visited exuded the same kind of aura: vintage, quirky, eccentric. They were often decorated with an assortment of kitsch or vintage so random it was hard to believe the place hadn’t just accumulated its décor over centuries of use. One café we visited twice was decked out like a Russian grandmother’s living room, all yellow-green chintz armchairs, old-fashioned floral still lifes on the wall and ornate gold frames. Another was brimming with retro toys – dolls, figurines, clocks, pages from books – voluminous spider plants and tables pasted with quirky adverts from old newspapers. We sat there and consumed two absolutely gigantic wedges of cake – a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing, and a ‘New York cheesecake’ so claggy and sweet I almost needed a spade to scrape it off the roof of my mouth afterwards. One night we ate dinner at an achingly trendy youth hostel, housed in an old biscuit factory. Empty bird cages dangled from the dilapidated ceiling, one metallic wall was devoted to the arranging of magnetic letters by guests into rude words, a corner was given over to an enormous bookcase, and old-fashioned maps of the country were fixed, resplendent in vintage frames, to the wall. Although we did have the misfortune to spot a Subway, this is a city that has yet to fall prey to the plague that is the chain store: it’s all about those quirky little independent places, the kind you always dream of finding on holiday. They’re not a myth perpetuated by travel guides – they’re just all in Iceland.
Our exploration of Reykjavik began with a coffee in the aforementioned Russian grandmother’s café. Icelandic coffee is excellent. It reminds me of Italian coffee: strong, not very milky, cappuccinos served in small cups, not the ridiculous vats you get over here. They are predominantly coffee, rather than froth – probably what you’d call a small latte over here, in terms of lack of frothiness. I don’t drink coffee very much, but found myself craving at least one a day in Iceland. Partly because I was utterly exhausted from our exploring activities, but also because it tasted so damn good. The best came from what I think is a local chain of coffee shops, ‘Te & Kaffi’, which has several branches in the city. They also sell an adorable range of brightly coloured teapots, and some exciting-sounding bags of Chinese and Japanese teas, as well as some Icelandic herbal tea that claimed to be useful for treating a variety of ailments.
Pleasantly surprised by the coffee, we sought dinner at a restaurant I’d read good things about on the internet, Tapashusid (translation: Tapas house). When I tell you that this is a sort of Spanish/Icelandic fusion restaurant, I expect your scepticism. I was somewhat confused too, and a little apprehensive. Even more so when I ordered the six-course ‘Taste of Iceland’ menu for nearly £40 – disappointment is so much more bitter when you’ve paid forty pounds for it. It was a risk.
Instead, I spent around two hours devouring what was probably one of the best meals of my life. This place utterly astounded me. Inside it was informal-looking, again blessed with the vintage Midas touch that seems to have left no corner of Reykjavik unaffected – we sat in a little corner near a wall plastered with retro record covers. Blackboards over the bar proclaimed the specials, as well as a hilarious guide as to how the steaks are cooked (“Blue: still mooing”; “Well done: ORDER CHICKEN”). We were served by a series of effervescent and charming waiters, who occasionally paused to join in with the resident female flamenco dancer. All this, you would think, would probably not be the setting for incredible food. A quick glance at the menu, though – bacon wrapped monkfish with bacon-wrapped dates; minke whale steak with teriyaki sauce, smoked apple, apple puree and mushrooms; smoky mushroom tortilla; salt cod, langoustine, bacon and egg foam – did tell me that I was unlikely to be receiving a bowl of sub-standard paella and a few calamari rings.
The food here was heart-stoppingly beautiful. Probably some of the prettiest food I’ve been served since my last trip to the Michelin-starred Yorke Arms. My first dish was a small plate of rare guillemot breast, apple puree, smoked apple pieces, mushrooms and a red wine jus. I’d obviously never tried guillemot before, but it was gorgeous – like very dark, very gamey pigeon, but beautifully tender. Game and apple is a new combination to me, but it was stupidly good, the whole thing held together by an underlying smokeyness; I’m not sure whether it came from the meat, the apple or the jus, but it was so good.
Next, slow-cooked Arctic char, which looks and tastes rather like trout. This was accompanied by pickles, dill, a very creamy, Hollandaise-like sauce, and a little green savoury meringue. I knew then that the rest of this food was going to be good. There’s something about a savoury meringue sitting on top of your fish course that kind of implies subsequent sophistication. This was a lovely plateful; you can’t really go wrong with oily fish and dill.
Next up, a wooden board sporting food that was a complete work of art. There were two dishes perched atop this: first, wafer-thin slices of pale pink lamb carpaccio, a little spoonful of lamb tartare, cubes of red and gold beetroot, a thin shard of crispbread, and a golden ribbon of parsnip puree. I’ve never tried raw lamb before, but this was lovely – fatty enough to give it a lovely silky mouthfeel, but still possessing that sweet lamb flavour. The parsnip (I normally hate them, but this was quite tasty) and beetroot helped to cut the richness of the meat.
On the other side of the board, a dark and interesting assortment of cured minke whale, blueberry coulis, halved bulbous blueberries, mustard, a red wine jus and a drizzle of teriyaki sauce.
Now, I’m just going to take a step back for a second, because I can tell you that without a doubt there is going to be some holier-than-thou person, somewhere, who will read that I ate whale and decide to lecture me on the grotesque ethical implications of my gastronomic choices. So I’ll pre-empt you with some honesty: I admit that I had no idea about the controversy surrounding whale-fishing in Iceland. This is unusual for me, as I’m generally pretty clued-up on unethical food practices the world over – shark fin soup in China/Japan, foie gras in France (I refuse to touch the stuff; I think it’s appalling, sick, and it doesn’t even taste that nice), weasel coffee in south-east Asia; snake-heart vodka in Vietnam; battery farming (particularly pork, which many people seem to forget about) in the UK and Europe. For some reason, the whaling issue had slipped under my ethical radar, and I tucked in without really understanding the implications. Having read a bit more since I returned home, I’m actually not entirely sure where I stand on the whaling debate. However, the single whale dish that I ate in my trip to Iceland, which will probably comprise the entirety of the whale I eat in my entire life, is probably not going to tip the balance either way. Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but I’m going to make no apologies for my one-off consumption of this controversial product.
And also, unfortunately, I cannot lie. It was bloody delicious. My minke whale came cured, meaning it had a firm texture and deeply gamey flavour. We also ordered, though, a dish of minke whale steak, served very rare with a similar flavour combination to my cured dish – apple puree, teriyaki sauce, red wine jus. This was a total revelation, both the meat and the flavour combination. It was like the tenderest, most juicy, melting fillet steak you’ll ever eat. Combining teriyaki, red wine, mushrooms, apple and game is something I’d never considered before, but something I now cannot wait to try. Obviously it won’t be with whale when I try it –I’m thinking more along the lines of venison, grouse or pigeon, and whale is illegal in the UK – but I can’t wait. It’s one of those combinations you can’t imagine until you taste it, and it was ridiculously good. Just take my word for it, and then hop over to Iceland so you can try the real deal.
There was a small wait for the main courses – yes, I know, those were only the starters – so I nibbled on some of the restaurant’s excellent foccacia, which they serve with olive oil to dip, and a little bowl of crushed salted spiced peanuts. Another flavour revelation – dipping oiled foccacia into crushed peanuts is DELICIOUS. Something I must try soon in my own kitchen. I’m glad I didn’t eat too much of this, though, because my main courses – all two of them – arrived, and they were pretty generous.
First, lamb rib-eye (a cut I’ve never heard of in relation to lamb, and which I suspect goes under another name here), which was the best lamb I’ve ever had. It was juicy and pink in the centre, smoky on the outside from the grill, succulent and sweet and fabulous. Lamb is a big thing in Iceland – much more so than beef. This came with ‘cauliflower couscous’, which I recently saw on MasterChef so was excited to try, a mustard sauce, a dark jus, and grilled oyster mushrooms. It was a carnivore’s delight, everything you want a plate of steak to be – juicy, salty, rich, meaty, robustly flavoured.
The other dish was equally substantial and robust – a mini decorative saucepan filled with ridiculously gorgeous chunks of salt cod – firmer, sweeter and saltier than normal cod – juicy langoustines, crispy bacon, and topped with an ‘egg foam’ which was basically a gooey, rich, thick hollandaise. This was finished with crunchy breadcrumbs for texture, and was the kind of thing I would eat for breakfast every day if I didn’t mind being obese. I loved the way the restaurant had struck a balance between delicately presented, beautiful food, and the kind of mouthwatering moreish flavours that you actually want to stuff yourself with. The other dishes we tried – the monkfish with dates and bacon, deep-fried langoustines, smoky mushroom fajita – were also in this vein; surprising flavour combinations that made you wonder why you don’t eat them every day, because they are so damn good.
Also fabulous were a dish of bacon-wrapped monkfish, roasted peppers, and bacon-wrapped dates, a plate of deep-fried langoustines, crispy and sweet and delectable, and a smoky mushroom fajita - deeply flavoured, intense mushrooms on a tortilla with tangy cheese.
Dessert was a struggle. You know how sometimes you worry about tasting menus, thinking they’ll present you with a thimbleful of each dish and leave you desperate for a piece of toast when you get home? This left me desperate for a Roman-style feather when I got home (note: this is a joke and I do not, in fact, support bulimia as an easy way to alleviate that feeling of self-disgust that accompanies a session of wild, intense, unmediated gorging). However, my dessert was sensibly light and pretty, and didn’t make me want to cry and run away in grotesque repletion when it arrived.
It consisted of a thin slab of moist carrot cake, a carrot sorbet (surprisingly good – I think it had a hefty dose of orange in there, because it was sweet and fruity and tasted very little of carrot), and a parfait of ‘skyr’. Skyr is an Icelandic cheese, made in a similar way to Middle Eastern labneh – by straining yoghurt until firm and tangy. Its pairing alongside the carrot cake made sense – it was basically a fancy version of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. The dessert was sprinkled with tiny, plump, marigold orange buckthorn berries, something I’ve always wanted to try since they were used on Great British Menu a few years ago. They are deeply sour, but also quite fruity, a very pleasant addition to the mellow cake/cheese combination. We also had an ‘Oreo pudding’, which was a chocolate mousse (pronounced ‘chocolate mouse’ by our waiter, which made us smile), blueberry compote, crunchy oreo crumbs, and a ball of ice cream. It was the total antithesis of my elegant dessert, trashy and obvious and in-your-face, but in a totally delicious way.
And that was my introduction to Icelandic cuisine. I have a sneaking suspicion that Icelanders do not eat like this on a daily basis, but it set the tone for a trip of excellent restaurant meals. This, at Tapashusid, was by far the best. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny, both for the temporary gratification it afforded me and also for the ideas it has given me for use in my own kitchen.
Speaking of money – Iceland is expensive. Probably not much more so than London, but it is hard to spend under about £50 a day, and if you want to do the kind of things you should do when visiting this unique country – ride horses, visit the Blue Lagoon, go on boat trips, see the geographical wonders – you will have to spend even more. It is possible to eat cheaply if you’re not bothered about sampling some of the gastronomic delights of Reykjavik – there are some fast food places and cafes selling sandwiches – but the good food comes at a price. Luckily, you don’t have to pay that much to get something delicious, as some of my other restaurant visits will show.
Barely hungry from the gluttony of the night before, I woke the next morning and forced myself to partake in our hotel breakfast – what a hardship. We stayed at the Leifur Eriksson hotel, in what I like to call the ‘penthouse suite’ but what was actually an absolutely tiny attic room on the top floor barely large enough for two people to stand up in without concussing themselves. It was cosy, that’s for sure. That aside, the hotel was perfectly pleasant, and breakfast was a bit of a highlight. In the corner of the breakfast room stood an arresting contraption: a waffle maker, with two hot plates, completely black and encrusted from years of use, smoking and perfuming the entire hotel with the sweet candyfloss scent of freshly made waffles. Next to it sat a big bowl of pale, thick batter, and a ladle.
I am baffled as to why the hotel hadn’t put up some instructions next to the waffle maker. In the three mornings I was there, at least two people had what can only be described as a complete waffle fail. There’s a knack to making waffles, you see – firstly, spray the plate with non-stick oil spray. Secondly, put enough batter – more than you would think – in, otherwise it won’t form a proper waffle and will just stick to each side. Thirdly and crucially, be patient. If you lift up the lid too soon, the waffle will pull apart and you’ll just have batter stuck to each side, impossible to remove (the staff were not happy – there was an audible tut as they set to work with a knife attempting to deal with the consequences of one guest’s waffle ineptitude). Fortunately, I managed to perfect this complex and elusive art very quickly, meaning we had perfect waffles for breakfast each morning. They were fabulous – thick, doughy, crispy on the outside, and subtly sweet and buttery. On top, generous dollops of blueberry jam – actually, I think it was bilberry, or wild blueberry – which was delicious but had the unfortunate side effect of giving me a bright blue tongue that no amount of toothpaste/toothbrushing could shift.
Our first full day took us out of the city into the forbidding landscape. We began by riding Icelandic horses through the lava fields, in all their bleak, rugged glory. The terrain is unchanging around here – earthy green moss and scrub, punctuated by dark black roads of cooled lava, the imposing mountains ever-present in the background. It wasn’t the most scenic, particularly given the steely skies, but this was more than compensated for by the fun I had riding my horse. His name in Icelandic translated as ‘little man’, and he was indeed tiny – like a slightly overgrown Shetland pony, a beautiful tan colour with the most gorgeous thick, sandy mane. I feel we bonded early on, as I led him by the bridle out of the stable – he kept nuzzling me with vigour. Later I discovered that he was just trying to use me as a scratching post. Oh well.
Most of the people in our large group had never ridden before, so we walked at a steady pace in single file through the lava fields. I soon felt slightly frustrated by this, as I could tell my little horse was eager to go a bit faster (or maybe it was just that his legs were about half as long as the other horses’, so he had to trot to keep up with their walk), so I joined the ‘fast group’ for experienced riders. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ‘experienced rider’ – that implies a degree of confidence that I do not have, my recent experiences with horses involving falling off or them bolting - but I figured I’d take the chance, and am so glad I did. I had a fantastic time, riding through the countryside, my little horse keen and fast but also very well-behaved.
My guide told me all about Icelandic horses, which was fascinating. There is a complete import ban on Icelandic horses to preserve the purity of the breed. When the horses go abroad to compete in international competitions, so strict are the rules that they can never return to Iceland, and must be sold in the country of the competition. This isn’t so bad if they’ve won, my guide explained, as they’ll fetch a good price – but the worst situation is when the rider has an excellent horse, but for some reason he doesn’t perform so well in competition, meaning the rider has lost both his horse and won’t even receive adequate financial compensation for his loss. Foreigners are also not allowed to bring used horse equipment into Iceland – hats, bridles, et cetera – or at least not without it being heavily sterilised first. They don’t vaccinate their horses, she explained, so their immune systems are quite susceptible to diseases that can be carried on used equipment.
The riding style is very different, too, to what I am used to. For instance, riders don’t rise during the trot – they stay sitting on the horse. This makes for an extremely bouncy but definitely less exhausting ride; it was slightly alarming at first, as I was convinced I was going to fall off, but I soon got used to relaxing and moving with the horse. The Icelandic horse also has a different set of gaits: tölt is faster than a walk but slower than a canter, and it is also very smooth for the rider. My guide was telling me that sometimes competitions are held where the rider holds a pint of beer for the duration of the ride, the aim being not to spill any, and then they must drink the remainder upon returning from the ride. There is also ‘flying gait’, which is faster than a gallop and so-called because in between strides the horse appears to be flying through the air; many horses aren’t trained to do this, though, because it’s exhausting for the horse and rider. I was certainly quite tired after my brisk and bouncy outing on my beautiful Icelandic horse, which was lucky because we were going to spend the afternoon steaming luxuriantly in a hot outdoor bath.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions. It’s easy to see why – with weather so changeable and a landscape so bleak, there is unmatchable relief to be had from sinking slowly into mineral-rich waters the temperature of a very hot bath, the result of geothermal activity, while the brisk Icelandic air whips your face. I say ‘sinking slowly’, but this is really just a romanticised notion. Because, in fact, you’ll dive frantically and in a clumsy, ungainly fashion into those waters: not only do you have to make your way from the changing rooms to the outdoor lagoon clad in nothing but your swimsuit, but they make you shower before you do it, meaning even the slightest tremor of Icelandic wind feels like someone has pressed an ice pack to your skin. Once in the lagoon, however, sweet relief is to be found. It really is hot, not the shiver-inducing lukewarm temperature of most UK outdoor swimming pools that claim to be heated. In fact, in some places the currents are almost scalding, and your otherwise relaxing dip in the lagoon is certainly likely to be punctuated by a few high-pitched shrieks every now and again, as one of these scorching currents wafts casually into an unsuspecting bather.
The water is milky, completely opaque and with a curious iridescence; it almost glows, particularly when the skies are so grey and flat. Thick steam rolls off the surface in waves. There is a smell of egg-like sulphur in the air (another thing about Iceland – the tap water smells of boiled eggs, making brushing your teeth an interesting sensory experience). Depending on which part of the lagoon you are in, you’ll either be standing on crunchy gravel-like sand, or sinking into thick mud that oozes creepily between your toes. It’s quite something, though, to sit there, face and neck exposed to the harshness of the elements (it started raining during our visit) while the rest of your body luxuriates in the delicious warmth. The high mineral content of the water is apparently very good for your skin, though leaves a horrible chalky residue that requires two showers to remove. As you sit and warmly repose, you’re surrounded by rocky outcrops that you can perch on. There is nothing else to see, for miles around – the lagoon lies in the middle of nowhere, a surprising beacon of blue among the dark rocky landscape. It’s hard to believe this is a totally natural phenomenon.
Horse riding and the lagoon left me absolutely starving. That night, we visited somewhere a little more budget-friendly for dinner, and weren’t disappointed. Icelandic Fish & Chips is a small café/restaurant near the harbour (choosing where to eat in Reykjavik is easy, because all the recommended eateries are approximately one hundred metres away from each other, so you can quite easily scout them all out in a ten minute session before making that all-important decision). You’d barely notice it if it weren’t for the sign above the wooden door that you have to open gingerly, peering around to see if the place is actually open – it’s hard to tell from the window. Inside is a very simple restaurant with a small bar and more blackboard notices on the walls. The premise behind this place is, as you might expect, fish and chips – but done well, and made a little unusual by their choice of accompaniments.
A lot of thought has gone into the food at this ‘organic bistro’, as they like to call it. The fish is coated with a batter made from spelt flour, because it crisps up better in the fryer and is better for you, being a more complex carbohydrate. They serve the fish with oven-roasted potato wedges, which are a little healthier than chips, and come in various options – plan, garlic, rosemary, for example. They fry their fish in rapeseed oil, high in omega 3. The fish is always fresh, the menu changing depending on what has been delivered that day. You are encouraged to choose a salad to accompany your fish, which range from simple greens to an elaborate combination of mango, red pepper, toasted coconut, spinach and olive oil. Finally, you can choose from a range of ‘skyronnes’: flavoured dips made from skyr, with flavours like truffle & tarragon, ginger & wasabi, lime & coriander. This is a far cry from the greasy, lard-scented chippies of the UK; not a wooden fork or piece of newspaper in sight.
We both had the fried Icelandic cod with plain potato wedges, the aforementioned mango salad, and a lime and coriander skyronne to accompany it. It was exactly what I needed after a hard day’s exertion (OK, sitting in the lagoon wasn’t really difficult, but it was certainly appetite-provoking): indulgent because of the superbly crispy fish batter and the sweet, succulent cod, but still nourishing and satisfying because of the zingy, flavoursome salad and well-seasoned potato wedges. It probably didn’t need the dip, but it was tasty all the same. I’d also been eyeing up a delicious-sounding combination of fried ling (a firm white fish), orange and black olive salad and rosemary potatoes; we didn’t have time to return, but I bet it would have been delicious. Our plates were about £14 each, which isn’t cheap but they were filling and very well done.
A quick aside: one of the things I really liked about Iceland was that every single café and restaurant had a table with jugs of water and glasses for you to help yourself – no need to ask for tap water and risk a sneer. Similarly, everywhere seemed to have free wifi (even the tourist buses), and public toilets are widespread. In these three respects, it is a world away from continental Europe.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the long daylight – the sun didn’t set until around 11pm when we were there; it’s even later in high summer. There is something quite disorientating and surreal about emerging from a long restaurant meal at 9.30pm to bright daylight, or settling down to sleep for the night while there is still light sky outside the window. Icelandic people must get so much done at this time of year. I did feel a bit bad that we didn’t do much to make the most of the longer light, but I was exhausted after all the food and activity.
Our second and last full day saw us taking in the Golden Circle, a 300km loop of some of Iceland’s best geographical attractions, by coach tour. We drove through the mountains, gloomy and imposing in the overcast light of day, through ‘no man’s land’, the area between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, past dark green fields and black lava, past rocky hills and snowy mountains that are apparently the homes of elves. There were no animals in sight other than the Icelandic horses. Our guide told us that you can look at an Icelandic horse to tell the direction of the bad weather – they face away from the wind and rain. Given that Icelandic lamb is supposed to be a delicacy, I thought it strange that I didn’t see a single sheep on my trip.
Before we actually visited any of the geographical marvels, we stopped at a ‘greenhouse town’ on the way, so-called because farmers use the high geothermal activity in these areas to power greenhouses and supply Iceland with exotic fruit and vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be producible. This particular greenhouse grew tomatoes. The owner explained that the water comes out of the ground at 95C in this area, the heat of which is channelled into the greenhouse system. The tomatoes are watered with the same water that people drink – because, he explained, a tomato is about 90% water, it makes sense to use good-quality water to grow the crop, as that quality will be reflected in the final product. The lights in the greenhouse are on 14-17 hours a day, and the plants grow 25cm each week – they have to be suspended from the ceiling on strings so they don’t droop with the weight of the fruit. The transition from a flowering plant to a red tomato takes about eight weeks. One aspect of the process I found fascinating was the pollination – bees are shipped in from Holland to perfom this careful task. Two boxes containing 60 female working bees arrive at the greenhouse each week.
The greenhouse had a little café, which was offering mugs of tomato soup. I mention this because of something I loved – each table had a huge basil plant on it, with a pair of scissors strapped to its pot. The idea being that you would get a mug of soup and snip your own basil to garnish it. It was the simplest idea but so lovely; I hope it catches on in cafes at home. Think of the possibilities – chopping your own coriander to adorn a curry; snipping your own parsley or dill to scatter over your seafood; tearing off delicate leaves of thyme to season your Sunday roast.
After this somewhat random first stop, we were taken to Gullfoss waterfall, first step on the Golden Circle itinerary. This absolutely gigantic waterfall formation appears startlingly smack bang in the middle of an otherwise fairly featureless landscape: green scrub, black soil, mountains in the distance. The sheer force of the water as it plummets over the various crests of the waterfall is astounding, as was the force of the freezing wind as we walked along paths hugging the edge of the cliff to get closer to this watery spectacle. I’ve seen waterfalls before, but none on this colossal scale. At one point a company tried to privatise the waterfall and use it for hydroelectric power, but the idea caused storms of protest and since then Gullfoss is protected for public enjoyment. Apparently there is a saying in Iceland: if someone suggests something completely inane or ridiculous, the common response is, ‘And then what? Sell Gullfoss?’
Next, we visited the Geysir hot spring area. With its gloomy, rugged, earthy landscape awash in white smoke emanating from the ground, this reminded me of the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings. The air is thick with the smell of sulphur, while a walk through this geothermally active area sees you alternately exposed to the cold Icelandic air and bathed in hot steam droplets as the vapour pours off the ground into your face.
Along the way there are small pools, some of them mini geysers, bubbling rampantly and sending hot spray into the air. The main attraction, though, is Strokkur, the famous geyser, apparently active for over 10,000 years, that erupts every few minutes to raptures of delight from the crowds inevitably gathered around its circumference, cameras poised to capture the moment.
Every so often, the innocuous-looking, calm blue pool that is Strokkur suddenly vents a colossal bubble, followed by a gigantic blast of boiling water – at least twenty feet high – that is no less surprising for being expected. At one point some of the crowd had to run backwards as the hot water, carried by the wind, descended upon their heads. The force with which it erupts, and the height, is really quite remarkable, particularly as it returns so quickly to a lake of placid blue calm, only an occasional bubble signifying the colossal geothermal activity occurring within those depths. Apparently only 100m down into the geyser, the temperature is 200C. It’s definitely a ‘look but don’t touch’ kind of attraction.
We stopped for lunch and a break from the assaulting rain at the tourist café which, as might be expected, was hideously overpriced – I objected to paying £12 for soup and some bread, so had an egg sandwich. Oddly, the omnipresent smell of sulphur had actually given me serious cravings for eggs, rather than – as might be more expected – a complete aversion. A small highlight, though, was a piece of apple tart. This seemed to basically combine everyone’s dessert fantasies into one: a pastry case, filled with custard and cooked apples, topped with crumble and drizzled with caramel. It did have that slightly soggy mass-produced taste to it, like something from an Ikea café, but it was pleasantly sweet and tasty all the same – just what we needed after hiking up the hills around the Geysir area and getting absolutely covered in quicksand-like thick red mud.
Finally, we visited Thingvellir National Park, home to Iceland’s parliament from 930 to 1262, which incorporated the geography of the place into its proceedings: speeches were held around the Logberg (Law Rock), while transgressors were executed in the Drowning Pool, a small lake at the foot of the rocks. Here you can actually see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates pulling apart, and witness the gulf between them. The area is rocky and hilly, with gorgeous views of Lake Thingvallavatn (formed by a retreating glacier) and the surrounding mountains; it was how I imagined the Norwegian Fjords would look.
On our way back, our guide told us something fascinating about the Icelandic language (words of which it is possible to recognise from my brief dalliance with Old English during my Masters). During the 18th century, a movement was started in the country to remove as many foreign words as possible from the language, and create a new vocabulary that would adapt the Icelandic language to new concepts, rather than imposing foreign words. For example, the computer: it was decided (for some reason) that a computer can see into the future, and that it works with numbers. Thus the Icelandic for computer is a portmanteau of tala (number) and völva (female prophetess): tölva. I’d heard something of this before, when someone once told me that the Icelandic for ‘coathanger’ literally translates as ‘wooden shoulders’. I love the idea that there is actually a committee dedicated to coining new words for modern concepts out of this ancient language.
Dinner that night needed to be substantial, given our day trekking around in the wind and rain. This was achieved in the best possible way by a trip to Sæmundur i Sparifötunum, the restaurant of Kex Hostel (the one discussed above, with the birdcages). Though the menu offered some tempting options – fried plaice with pickled lemons, burned butter and almonds; fried and glazed turkey with mushrooms and bacon; lamb meatballs – it had to be the burger, which promised local free-range beef, Icelandic cheese, caramelised onion mayonnaise, and potato wedges with cumin mayonnaise. It was probably the best burger I’ve ever eaten, everything you want a burger to be. The bun was robust enough to hold the burger without tearing, nicely toasted on top for a little texture. The meat was rich and deeply flavoured, the cheese tangy and creamy, the mayonnaise holding everything together. The potato wedges were just insane. They were the crispiest things I think I’ve ever eaten, seasoned beautifully, and the cumin mayonnaise was just an inspired idea. This was proper big, hearty comfort food, but taken to the pinnacle of perfection – much like the fish and chips of the night before. Not bad value at £14, either – probably what you’d pay in a London gastropub. Plus you could help yourself to very nice bread and butter, so there was no danger of us leaving hungry.
Afterwards (still daylight!), we went to a little ice cream café, Eldur and Is, where I had a crêpe with bananas and pecan caramel ice cream. The menu pointed out that the crêpes were made with spelt flour. This seems to be a bit of a thing in Iceland – several menus had mentioned spelt chocolate cake, while Icelandic Fish and Chips used spelt in their batter. I don’t know if maybe the flour is cheaper there than ordinary white flour, or they’re just more health conscious. Either way, the crêpe was tasty.
While I was eating it, I watched the man behind the counter dip a huge Mr Whippy-style ice cream on a cone – the ice cream must have been standing at least six inches high – upside down into a vat of molten chocolate sauce. How the structural integrity of this calorific creation was maintained I do not know; it was quite remarkable to watch. The dessert of choice in Iceland, crêpes and ice cream aside, seems to be a mousse of skyr served with various fruit compotes, chocolate, or nuts. I didn’t try this, though, as I’m not a big fan of creamy desserts – I like them to have a little more texture (read: stodge).
On our final morning, we got up early to head out on a boat and watch puffins. This was immensely exciting, as there are few things funnier to observe than a puffin. They look so out of proportion, with their huge coloured beaks and their little wings, flapping desperately in the air as if struggling to stay airborne. We visited an island home to thousands of them; there are around 10 million in Iceland. Our guide told us a little about these birds: their black backs and white bellies provide camouflage while underwater – if something is above the puffin looking down, it sees only the dark of the water; if below and looking up, it sees the white of the sun shining down on the water. This is true for a lot of ocean animals – fish and whales included. I’d never thought about this before – why fish have light bellies and dark backs – and found it fascinating. Puffins can dive to 40 metres underwater, and they mate for life, somehow carving out little holes in the side of islands in which to rear their young – they have only one baby at a time. The babies are called – wait for it – pufflings, which is possibly the most adorable thing I have ever heard. Sadly we were too early in the year to see any pufflings, but it was a very enjoyable morning spent upon the boat watching these funny creatures through binoculars.
Incidentally, the weather finally brightened up for our final few hours in the country. This was how I’d imagined Iceland to look – completely clear frosty blue sky, bright ocean, majestic snowy mountains in the background. It was beautiful, and a completely different experience strolling the town with the warmth of the sun on our faces.
My final meal is worth mentioning, largely because it presented me with the opportunity to try fermented shark. Innocuous enough, the shark was served in small cubes – resembling ceviche – in a little ramekin. It was pale, white and firm. The first few seconds were fairly pleasant. There was a light, sweet taste; a firm, meaty texture, reminiscent of good sashimi. I was rather enjoying it, until a rancid wave of searing ammonia hit my palate, stinging the roof of my mouth and engulfing my sinuses with its acrid tang.
Fermented shark is definitely not the ideal introduction to Icelandic cuisine. When fresh, the Greenland shark is actually poisonous due to its high urea content. After being buried in gravel, pressed with heavy rocks for six to twelve weeks and then cured for several months, however, it is miraculously transformed into a local delicacy, something that can be eaten. Whether it should be, of course, is another matter. Newcomers to this unusual foodstuff are advised to hold their nose, as the shark packs a hefty aromatic punch of ammonia, exuding an aroma that I can only describe as a cross between toilet cleaner and strong cheese. I’m normally pretty adventurous with food, but fermented shark can go on my ‘never eating again’ list, alongside andouillette, a French sausage made from the colon of a pig and tasting exactly like the colon of a pig.
This gastronomic adventure took place at Café Loki, a lovely little venue about twenty metres away from our hotel and right in front of Hallgrimskirkja church, the largest church in Iceland and an imposing, modernist building that reminded me a little of Minas Tirith (more Lord of the Rings similarities here…I wonder if Tolkein ever visited Iceland).
The café was light and airy, and offered an array of Icelandic dishes as well as more standard fare, like bagels and cake. I went for a plate of Icelandic specialities, which included the aforementioned shark. Other than that, though, it was very tasty indeed – I had rye bread topped with smoked trout and cottage cheese, rye bread topped with a delicious mixture of herring, potato, cheese, chives and onion (which looked like scrambled egg but tasted, deliciously, like a fish pie), and – my favourite – rye flatbread topped with butter and smoked lamb. This appeared in various places on my travels, and is really satisfying – the bread is dense and squidgy with a nutty flavour, while the butter is creamy and the lamb subtly sweet and smoky. I also tried dried fish, which you’re supposed to spread with butter and eat, but this was a bit odd – the fish was indeed very dry, so quite difficult to eat and a bit of a strange experience. At least it wasn’t fermented, though.
And that was it – a whirlwind tour around a remarkable country, with plenty of opportunities for eating along the way; a journey home fuelled by fermented shark. There is a lot I wish we’d had time to do – whale watching, snorkelling (the water is the clearest in the world, you can see for up to 100 metres), more horse riding, trekking – but I think I got a fairly good feeling for the place. It was so different to anywhere I’d visited before – normally my holiday destinations are substantially hotter and more tropical than the UK – and presented me with things I’d never seen before.
Perhaps it was rather a strange holiday destination, but Iceland is certainly somewhere you should visit at some point in your life, if only for the way it presents you with the unexpected and the marvellous every day. It’s geography taken to the extreme, and experiencing the culture that has been shaped from that rugged landscape and hostile climate is certainly an adventure. More than all that, though, the food is excellent – exciting, unusual, revelatory, and often beautiful.
It's five months since I returned from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so perhaps it seems odd to be posting this now. Recently I wasn't sure that I ever would post it. I returned to England - having not slept in 36 hours and carrying four gigantic suitcases containing everything from kimonos to chopsticks, from tea sets to boxes made out of cinnamon wood - armed with a notebook full of food-related memories and a host of noodle-related photos on my camera, determined to write an epic entry all about the food on my travels.
Then, as the days passed, I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and write it. This in part was due to laziness - one eats rather a lot in thirty-one days, and since pretty much everything I ate was worth documenting, the mammoth task of writing it all up was just too daunting. There was also a part of me that felt the memories would be ruined by putting them on here, by turning reminiscing into something too much like work.
Recently, though, I've realised how much I value posts about food I've eaten in other countries, like those on Prague, Italy, and the Middle East. Reading them over months or even years after the trips is a little like being there again. I remember dishes I'd completely forgotten, that I loved at the time, and I'm reminded to recreate them. Inextricably linked with those recollections of food are those involving places, sounds, smells, sights - all the little details you drink in while travelling but forget once the greyness of England has reclaimed your soul.
Although I may have lost something by not writing up my memories of Vietnam and Cambodia as soon as I returned, I don't feel it's too late. I still think about that trip every day, without fail, and I still feel almost crippling pangs of nostalgia and pining at certain moments - a song comes on my playlist from an album that I listened to almost continuously while out there (Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, should you be wondering); I find myself chopping up jagged shards of palm sugar that I bought in Cambodia; I go to sleep under a beautiful silken elephant bedspread, a souvenir from Siam Reap; I drink a cup of lime leaf or lotus leaf tea; I eat dinner with the chopsticks I purchased in Saigon. All these things serve to jog the memory in a powerfully bittersweet way. If something can conjure up that much emotion so long after the event itself, I feel it is worth writing about. I also hope anyone who reads it will enjoy it too - I promise not to be too self-indulgent - and maybe find inspiration to hopefully travel there themselves one day or, at the very least, cook up a new and exciting noodle dish.
I thought about the best way to arrange this post, since there is just so much to say, and I decided that the best way would be to work chronologically and geographically. I started my trip in Hanoi, so will begin there.
Well, technically, I began my trip in Saigon. After a gruelling 24-hour journey, involving two flights and a seven-hour stopover in Dubai, we arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (I'm still not sure which name to call this city by, and find myself alternating as the whim takes me). My initial impressions were of the humidity and the chaos of the place; the taxi ride to the hotel was a constant succession of pulsating neon lights and car/motorbike horns. Said neon lights were an interesting medley of advertisements for 'Massage' and 'Karaoke' (which often implies a brothel), and the giant outlines of pagodas, often affixed to restaurant facades. It reminded me of New York, only rather more ramshackle and mad. After checking into our hotel, we wandered the vicinity for a while, but in my exhausted state I found all the sights, smells and lights somewhat overwhelming. I saw delicious food being piled into bowls on every street, but - not speaking any Vietnamese and having no prior experience of east Asian culture - had no idea how to approach any of it and found the whole thing a little too intimidating. I went to bed, figuring I'd have more energy in the morning.
Wandering Saigon for a morning, my main highlight was finding the most wonderful smoothie stall, right near our hotel. These smoothies are so far from the stuff we get in the UK in (hugely expensive) bottles that you'd barely recognise them. A poster displayed a list of every fruit imaginable, including some I'd never tried or even heard of, and you could ask for your own combination to be blended up in front of you. I played safe with mango, pineapple and passionfruit. It came in a glass taller than my own face, garnished with slices of fresh pineapple and passionfruit seeds. After the tiring journey of the day(s) before, and coupled with the intense humidity, it was like drinking nectar.
This had a profound and lasting effect on my entire trip; wherever we went next, my first priority was to find a smoothie stall. I drank at least one every single day, my favourite being a 'mango shake', which I think tastes so good in Vietnam because they add a lot of sweet condensed milk to it. I never watched as these smoothies were made, preferring to be blissfully ignorant of how fattening my beverage of choice truly was. Besides, in the exhausting heat, I figure I'd earned it.
The most incredible part was that these smoothies never cost more than the equivalent of 80p. I couldn't believe it. In England, you'd pay at least £5 for the privilege of having fresh fruit blended with ice before your eyes and put in a plastic cup. In Vietnam, where the tropical fruit is so much fresher and sweeter, it costs a fraction of the price. As an ardent lover of fruit, I could barely believe my luck. Coming a close second to a mango shake was a papaya shake, which I drank every day in Cambodia. Papaya is one of my favourite fruits, and when combined with condensed milk or - as I had in Hanoi - coconut cream, makes for basically a dessert in a cup. I never found a smoothie stall as good as that one in Saigon, though, which perhaps explains why it was always so busy. Moments spent perched in its dingy alleyway on little plastic stools, sipping sweet, cold fruit as the sweat ran down the back of my neck, were moments to be savoured.
Visiting Ben Thanh market in Saigon also prepared me for the wonder that is the Asian market. I was assaulted by the scent of dried shrimp and fish, sizzling meat on a grill, wafts of aromatic noodle broth emerging from giant cooking vats, the omnipresent aroma of the infamous durian fruit (more on that later, it deserves a whole paragraph!) and the heady scent of freshly ground coffee.
The market sold all sorts of clothes and souvenirs too, but this is a food blog, so I'll keep it gastronomic.
There were piles of translucent, vivid orange dried shrimp, in all grades and sizes; huge stiff fillets of dried fish hanging from rails; piles of vivid guava, dragonfruit, rambutans, mangoes, custard apples, bananas, pineapple; huge jars of tea leaves and coffee beans; numerous jars of different types of chilli sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce. In the middle of it all there were stalls selling food to eat there and then. Overwhelmed by it all, we followed our eyes and noses to a busy stall producing delicious-looking food. I ordered fresh spring rolls and bun cha, two classic Vietnamese dishes I was keen to try.
Once you've had a fresh Vietnamese spring roll - slightly squidgy rice paper wrapper, crunchy vivid green herbs, soft tangle of rice noodles, tender and flavoursome prawn, pork or crab, sweet-sour dipping sauce - you'll never want to touch those greasy Chinese restaurant versions again. They're a textural delight, filling and delicious. Bun cha - cold rice noodles with grilled pork, herbs, and a sweet-sour dipping sauce - is in the same vein. Everything is so fresh, crunchy and vibrant, healthy but indulgent at the same time.
This was the moment I, to be nauseatingly clichéd, fell in love with Vietnamese food. Before my trip, I'd been a bit 'meh' about Asian food. I would eat it, and enjoy it, but my idea of going out for dinner as a treat never stretched to Asian food. I considered it fuel, rather than something to be seen as special. Now, given a choice of restaurants, I will always go for Asian food. I have been completely won over by its freshness, its healthiness, its miraculous understanding of texture and contrast, all thanks to Vietnam.
We had an awful flight to Hanoi, involving huge amounts of turbulence. As a nervous flyer, I found this rather traumatic. I found it much more traumatic later, however, when we arrived in the city and saw that the storm into which we had flown had actually uprooted trees from the pavement and smashed them into houses. A spine-chilling moment if ever there was one.
Hanoi is not what you would call pretty, but I loved it. It has an old-world charm about it, with its narrow streets, even narrower buildings, bustle of shops and markets, and beautiful lake. It is full of life in a very different way to the much more modern and Westernised Saigon. It was also my first experience of tropical weather, and the first and last outing of my lovely new leather sandals on my trip. After a couple of hours trudging around deep grey puddles, they were swiftly relegated to the bottom of my backpack and replaced with a nasty cheap pair of foam velcro sandals. So constant and torrential was the rain that a maroon plastic poncho became my best friend. I like to think it helped me to blend in with the locals. Until they saw my face or the colour of my hair, that is.
Also, I know this is a food blog rather than a travel blog, but if you're going to Hanoi, I'd highly recommend staying at Hanoi Guesthouse. It's right in the centre of the city, it's a very attractive little hotel (they put rose petals on our beds for when we arrived - shame we weren't actually a couple), and the staff are beyond friendly; they will go out of their way to make sure everything is perfect for you, bringing you cold drinks every time you come back after a hot day sightseeing, arranging Halong Bay tours, booking train tickets, etc. Also, the pineapple pancakes at breakfast are delicious.
My first meal in Hanoi was at a restaurant across the street from our hotel. I had cha ca thang long, a dish of white fish cooked in a turmeric-rich broth. It was cooked in a burner placed on our table, in front of me, which was quite exciting. The fish is served with its sauce and a large amount of fresh dill - surprising, since it's not a herb I saw at any other point in Vietnam - plus a scattering of peanuts. And, of course, rice. It was absolutely delicious. The fish had been grilled first to give it a lovely caramelised exterior, and then the aromatics of the broth turned it wonderfully moist and flavoursome.
I also had an utterly bizarre plate of food at another restaurant one night. The waitress recommended the 'fish in passion fruit sauce' to me. I was sceptical, but as I love fruit in savoury dishes, and as I didn't want to doubt her taste, I ordered it. What arrived in front of me was a plate of deep-fried fish chunks, smothered in what can only be described as a passion fruit coulis. You know, the kind you get on a cheesecake or a meringue. That is where passion fruit coulis should stay. It is not made to be put on fried fish. The entire thing was totally bizarre, a strange hybrid of main course and dessert. Even I don't like that much fruit in my main courses.
The highlight of our stay in Hanoi was doing a street food tour with Hanoi Cooking Centre. This was a brilliant idea, and I'd really recommend it if you travel to Hanoi, because it demystifies the initially rather intimidating world of street food.
Food in Vietnam is very unlike our English restaurant scene. The best food comes not from restaurants, but out of tiny ramshackle stalls or buildings specialising in a single dish, often perfected over decades by the families that run the stall. I saw women sitting on the middle of the pavement, with a mat on which were placed little bowls of ingredients, shaving green papaya with potato peelers, ready to sell their papaya salads from that very spot. There were vats of noodle broth bubbling away down dark, dingy alleyways, often with a large queue of hungry Vietnamese to match. People sit on tiny stools, the kind we have for children at nursery, in the middle of the street. They don't order, there is no menu, they just sit down and are brought whatever the speciality of that stall is, to wolf down with simple wooden chopsticks from a communal pot.
If you're new to all this, though, it can be a little confusing. Our wonderful guide from the cooking school took us to his favourite street food stops over the course of a morning. We tried some of Hanoi's best street food; as a local, he knew all the best places to take us. First, we breakfasted as the Vietnamese do, with a bowl of steaming pho (pronounced 'fur').
This is often cited as Vietnam's 'national dish', and it's true, there are signs proclaiming 'PHO' nearly everywhere you go. Pho is generally available in two types, though some places specialise in just one. There is pho ga, which is made with chicken, and pho bo, which is made with beef. For both, the making of the broth is an incredibly long process, involving up to 24 hours of simmering bones and aromatics. This flavoursome, clean liquid is ladled into bowls containing a tangle of thick rice noodles, beansprouts, and the meat. It might just be shreds of chicken, or you might also get little meatballs made of chicken and sometimes chicken offal. It might be slices of cooked beef, or beef meatballs, or slices of raw steak that are cooked to rare by the hot broth. The pho is served alongside lime halves and vinegar; our guide told us that the lime is used for pho ga, and the vinegar for pho bo.
I was initially sceptical about the idea of soup for breakfast. Breakfast for me is strictly a sweet meal. Very occasionally I might make myself some eggs on toast, but almost without exception my breakfast consists of fruit with porridge, muesli, or toast. Meat for breakfast is definitely not something that would ever fill me with happiness.
Yet during the frenzy of a month's travelling, a constant medley of euphoric energy and sheer, humid exhaustion, a bowl of cleansing broth in the morning became more than welcome. I actually began to crave it. One of the best bowls of pho I ate was at Dong Hoi station, before catching a train to Hue. I'd woken at 5.45 to get to the station and hadn't eaten. We brought baguettes and jam with us, but rather than eat those, I went to a little stall outside the station and was presented with a beautiful china bowl of broth, topped with the most delicious pink beef slices. It was exactly what my tired body needed, which is perhaps why it remains in my memory as such a highlight.
Pho is more than a bowl of soup; it is the ultimate in comfort food, the ultimate one-bowl meal. Filling, nutritious and soul-saving, pho brightened a couple of very emotional and draining days in Vietnam. Sitting hunched over a wooden bench, squeezing tiny lime halves into the bowl, inhaling the meaty aroma, its steam condensing on your already-sweating face, tangling the slippery noodles around your chopsticks...it's a ritual, one I came to love, and one that I miss the most now I'm home.
The next dish we tried on our tour was one of my favourites; ban cuon. This is a deliciously squidgy pancake made from rice flour batter, which is steamed and then wrapped around a pork and mushroom filling and sprinkled with fried onions, dried shrimp and Vietnamese herbs, served with a dip of fish sauce and lime juice.
One thing that's so addictive about Vietnamese food is the contrast in textures. Here you have deliciously gooey pancake, rather like dim sum dumplings, tender, flavoursome filling, and the crunch of the fried onions and dried shrimp. It's salty and umami-rich, brightened by the sweet-sour-salty dipping sauce. A plate costs 30p, which is just insane. I watched the women at work making the ban cuon: ladling batter onto a sheet of muslin stretched over a bubbling pot, removing it after a few seconds with a palette knife and deftly sliding it onto an oiled work surface, where it was stuffed with its filling before being sliced into pieces and served. It was one of the most delicious, fresh, satisfying things I've ever eaten, and something totally impossible to truly recreate outside Vietnam.
Our guide also showed us this curious water beetle, which he chopped into pieces and put in the dipping sauce. Apparently the juice inside this bug is highly valuable, and it imparted this bizarre floral fragrance to the sauce. I wasn't so keen on it, but initially I thought he wanted us to eat the whole bug, legs and all, so I was a bit relieved (although quite up for trying it, as none of the boys were!).
Another street food dish I loved was ban xao, a rice pancake but this time fried until golden and crispy. It's folded over beansprouts, herbs and shrimp (sometimes other things too, like pork) so it looks rather like a cornish pasty, and at our stall was then cut into pieces (with a pair of rusty scissors - so far removed from the flashy chef's knives of Western cooking) and stuffed inside Vietnamese spring rolls, to be dipped in another sweet-sour dipping sauce. Again, this is all about a contrast of textures, and the crispy fried pancake against the sweet sauce is delicious.
On our street food tour we were also introduced to bia hoi, fresh beer - as a hater of beer this did not excite me, and I was not converted - and Vietnamese coffee, which is fiendishly strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I found it far too sweet, and since even the one sip I did have left me shaking for a good two hours afterwards, it's probably a good thing I didn't develop a taste for it. I did rather love the ritual of putting the simple tin coffee pot over the cup and letting the inky black liquid percolate, though.
We were also taken to a market at the beginning of our tour, where our guide demystified some of the more unusual Vietnamese ingredients. There were huge leafy piles of herbs I've never seen before, and have never seen since. We tasted Vietnamese coriander which, unlike the version we get here, had long, straight leaves. We tried Vietnamese 'fish mint', a minty herb with a strong fish flavour that is apparently an acquired taste, though I liked it. Most Vietnamese food is placed on the table with a tin plate of just-washed fresh herbs, droplets of water still clinging to their leaves. These are placed in spring rolls, scattered over bowls of noodles or immersed in soup at the table, before eating. In England it would seem bizarre to munch on bunches of fresh herbs as part of a meal, but I really enjoyed this tradition in Vietnam. It made the meal seem so much fresher and healthier.
I also got this amazing photo of a chicken for sale. Gruesome and horrible, but quite cool, I think.
Other interesting market highlights were net bags of fertilized duck eggs, i.e. with the embryo inside. I never got to try these (and I'm not too sad about it), but I did find it interesting when our guide explained that the Vietnamese eat them largely for the extra protein from the baby duck bones. Given that meat is expensive in Vietnam, and very few Vietnamese dishes contain much of it, or anything protein-rich, fertilized duck eggs are a valuable source of nutrients. The eggs are kept in a net bag rather than simply in a bowl in case the eggs hatch and the ducks crawl out, which I found a little creepy.
We also saw baskets of fresh turmeric and galangal, bags of live frogs, tubs of huge snails, big plastic bowls with live fish swimming around (the live animal stuff did upset me a bit - one major drawback to life in the far east is the decline in animal welfare standards), meat being hacked up with cleavers while rivulets of blood ran down the ground, and rows of bottled fish sauce. Apparently the best Vietnamese fish sauce is made from black mackerel rather than anchovies, which I found interesting. The key to good quality is if you shake it and see lots of bubbles, and no sediment, as our guide demonstrated for us. I nearly bought a bottle to take home, but thinking of the consequences of it smashing in my suitcase deterred me.
For someone used to buying their produce neatly wrapped in plastic bags in the sterile environment of the Western supermarket, Asian markets are something of a revelation (in both a positive and a negative way). Everything is so much more vibrant, so much more present - you can see, touch, smell and almost taste your ingredients before purchasing them. The fish are still thrashing, the frogs still crawling around - a far cry from the supermarket fish counter, which sometimes houses week-old specimens (though I'd probably prefer that to seeing my fish decapitated in front of me). The fruit is neon-bright, piled high in abundant plenty. The floors are covered in puddles, a mixture of monsoon rain, blood, and fish guts. Motorbikes zoom through aisles barely wider than a human being, up and down steps, so your shopping trip is frequently interrupted by a near-miss moment or the screeching of motorbike horns (a near-constant sound in Vietnam). I couldn't quite believe these mopeds were just screeching around the market without anyone batting an eyelid.
After a relaxing few days wandering the wonderful shops of Hanoi, eating street food, strolling around the lake, getting amazingly cheap (non-dodgy) massages and drinking papaya coconut smoothies, we had a three-day tour of Halong Bay. Nothing special to report here, food-wise - the cruise ship food was lovely, but a lot of it was quite Westernised - but photos of the scenery speak for themselves. We swam in the bath-warm turquoise water, kayaked around the amazing rock formations, and had a fun few hours jumping off the side of our boat into the sea. It was idyllic, in the truest sense of the word.
Our next stop was Phong Nha Ke Bang, a national park in north west Vietnam that has only really just opened to tourists. Containing over 104km of caves and underground rivers, including the largest cave yet discovered in the world, this park houses a treasure trove of geological and ecological interest. If you want all the facts, click the link. If you want to hear what I thought about it, well, it was basically like Jurassic Park.
We arrived at Phong Nha Farmstay, our accommodation for two nights, located in the middle of lush rice paddies near a local village, having just emerged bleary-eyed from the overnight train. We were almost force-fed breakfast (more pineapple pancakes), then rushed onto a tour of the park along with a group of other guests. I initially thought we'd been the lucky ones when we got to ride in the open-topped jeep instead of the minibus; wind blowing through our hair, rock music blaring on the stereo, incredible scenery all around...but then a tropical downpour began. Oops. It took me two days to get dry clothes again.
We spent the day walking around the jungle, exploring gigantic caves (if you think you've been in a cave before, you really haven't until you've seen something of this magnitude), constantly reapplying insect repellent, and generally marvelling at the incredible beauty of the scenery: lush vegetation, towering cliffs, rushing rivers. The park is very near the Laos border, which makes me want to go to Laos, as the scenery was just insanely beautiful. Everything was so, so green - you don't get vegetation that green in England. Cows and water buffalo were roaming everywhere, camel-coloured dots breaking up the intense green of the horizon.
We went swimming in one of the rivers, many of us finding ourselves clinging onto the safety rope to avoid being swept away by the current. The water was cold; it was a relief to find ourselves somewhere substantially cooler and breezier than sweaty, polluted Hanoi. I'm a big lover of outdoor swimming, particularly refreshing after the cramped heat of the Vietnam night train. You haven't really done it until you've done it in a sweeping valley surrounded by towering cliffs and creeping jungle.
On our second day in Phong Nha, we borrowed bikes from the farmstay and cycled to Phong Nha cave, which we accessed by boat along its underground river. It was magical and mystical and beautiful and wonderful, dark and silent except for the plash of the oar hitting the water...until our boat driver put some Asian rave techno music on his phone to accompany the return journey. Something of a mood-killer.
We passed lots of rural houses along the way, which invariably resulted in wild cries of 'HELLO!' from the local villagers. The children often came out to high-five us as we cycled past. It was a huge contrast to Hanoi, where there are so many tourists that the locals often seem quite jaded about them. I wasn't quite prepared for the ambush we experienced on passing a local school - every child in the playground rushed out to wave and shout hello at us.
I realise this was meant to be about food, and I've got rather sidetracked. Phong Nha was without doubt the highlight of my trip. I met some wonderful people there, had a fantastic time, and was surrounded for a couple of days by the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape I've ever seen in my life. I also saw my first firefly during the second night, which was slightly ridiculously exciting. Less exciting was being casually groped by a group of Vietnamese men on a motorbike, but I tend to forget that part when reminiscing nostalgically. 'Getting away from it all' doesn't even do justice to how amazing it was to be out amongst the quiet of the rice paddies and the palm trees and the sunset.
We did eat well, too - on the way back from Phong Nha cave we stopped at a little restaurant and gorged ourselves on fish, rice and vegetables for some tiny amount of money. I forget what we ate, though, because I was too distracted by the magic of the place.
Next stop was Hue, the old imperial city. It is known for its luxurious food traditions, a relic of the days when it was the centre of Vietnamese royalty. To please the royal palates, Hue's chefs came up with a huge array of dishes, many of which were designed to be eaten as small bites, tapas-style. Our introduction to food in Hue began with a very untraditional but still delicious passion fruit jam, served with the toast our hotel plied us with when we arrived. I hadn't actually expected breakfast at 11.30am, but it was deeply welcome nonetheless. I still have a plan to make that jam at home one day.
The indisputable highlights of Hue were the citadel and the Royal Tombs. We visited the former on our first day there, emerging from the hotel to glorious sunshine and finding ourselves, half an hour later, sheltering at the entrance to the citadel to avoid the torrential rain that lasted all of the afternoon. After a while we just went with it, running shrieking through the puddles and getting enjoyably drenched. The beauty of Vietnam is that even if you do get soaked in the rain, you dry off within minutes once it eases off and the sun comes out
I also spotted my first real elephant (zoos aside, of course) in the citadel grounds, which was more than a little exciting. The citadel buildings made me feel like an extra in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; they were absolutely stunning, particularly where little purple flowers had carpeted the moats. In a way the rain made it even more atmospheric, the resplendent reds, oranges and golds of the buildings shimmering reflected in the deep puddles, the colours seeming so much brighter and more impressive against the backdrop of the gloomy skies.
Hungry after our sightseeing, we visited the giant market, where I went on a fruit-buying frenzy, keen to try all these exotic unfamiliar specimens I'd seen so far on my travels. I tried pomelo, like a giant sweet grapefruit, which is often used to make a delicious salad. I tried mangosteen, which looks like a squat brown tomato, with a very thick skin and a soft, juicy, lobed centre, reminiscent in texture of a banana, that is incredibly sweet and fragrant, tasting a little like a lychee. I tried green-skinned oranges, which were quite sour. We sat outside the market and devoured our treasure armed with a penknife and some hand sanitiser. A woman addressed us as we roamed the stalls - "Where you from?" When we replied "England", she looked surprised. "Oh but you very slim! You look like Vietnamese!"
Which I take as a massive personal compliment, and a very sad but true approximation of the state of Western obesity rates.
Hue was one of my favourite places on the trip, for reasons I can't quite place. It has a certain grandeur about it, built on either side of the huge, majestic 'Perfume River', and home to the glorious citadel and Royal Tombs. It's also full of life, but in a quieter, more understated way than Hanoi or Saigon. Maybe it was because it was the first city we'd visited that felt spacious, that gave you room to move and breathe without the constant assault of motorbikes. The food was also excellent, as you'd expect from somewhere with such a reputation. On the first day we ate a selection of dishes from a stall in the market, including some strange dumplings with an eerie translucent exterior that looked a bit like alien eggs, but I think housed prawns. They were tasty, if a strange texture. We also ate grilled pork skewers and noodle soup. On the first night we went to a restaurant called Anh Binh, and I had the most glorious vermicelli noodles with crab meat, which were richly garlicky and incredibly delicious, an Asian version of the Italian crab linguine I used to love at a restaurant near my boyfriend's house. I had something similar again in Saigon on the last day of our trip, because I loved it so much.
Incidentally, I should also mention our wonderful hotel, HueNino. If you're going to Hue, stay here. It's insanely cheap, which I can't quite fathom because it's great. The rooms are nice (although ours had a see-through glass bathroom door, which was a bit weird), but it's the staff that really make it - they're so friendly, and will greet you with iced tea or juice every time you walk in the door. Breakfast is also excellent.
Hue was also where I discovered the joy of Vietnamese motorbike riding. That is, sitting on the back of one while a much more experienced (and brave) local guide does all the driving (read: avoiding other maniac drivers). Our guides, Mr Tri and Anh, took us on a fantastic tour of the best of the tombs, which were absolutely incredible, imposing and dark and vaguely Gothic-looking in places. The real perk was their local knowledge - they took us to a fantastic restaurant where we couldn't spot a single tourist, and we ate bun thit nuong (see below), now one of my favourite dishes - cold vermicelli noodles with grilled marinated pork and a peanut sauce. They were so cool and refreshing in the heat of the day, after sitting on the bike all morning - it's surprisingly tiring being a passenger, I think because I was constantly fearing for my life and holding tightly onto Anh's shoulders for the entire morning.
It's interesting how, in Vietnam, the horn is the indicator. You use it to signal that you're about to do something that might jeopardise others on the road, so basically, all the time. I do maintain, though, that Vietnamese drivers - like Syrian drivers, as I found out two years ago - are far better and safer than English ones, because they expect people to do stupid things on the road the whole time, so are generally better at avoiding accidents than us Westerners, who are taken aback by mad driving.
Bun thit nuong I developed a love for this cheap thrill, though, so when Mr Tri and Anh offered to drive us by motorbike to Hoi An, our next stop, instead of us taking the bus, we jumped at the chance. I was incredibly sceptical about them getting all of our luggage onto two little motorbikes, though, and Mr Tri's "You don't worry, in Vietnam we carry water buffalo on motorbike!" did little to reassure me.
I watched with wonder the next morning as they wrapped our luggage in big waterproof bags and strapped it tightly to the tiny luggage rack on the back of the bikes with leather cords. The only casualty of the journey was my newly-purchased conical hat (they make special ones in Hue that have a pattern woven inside them that you can see when you hold the hat up to the light), which I'd foolishly put in my back - it got rather squashed from the straps.
Aside from the adrenaline rush, one of the major perks of a Vietnamese motorbike guide (or 'Easy Rider', as they call themselves) is the local knowledge. Constantly being marked out as a target for scams and harassment because of my obvious tourist appearance, and the victim of what I call 'tourist inflation', i.e. when prices quoted to you are approximately a hundred times more than those given to the local Vietnamese, it was a relief to be able to travel with locals. There are two main advantages: a) you pay the local price for everything, which is a plus both for financial reasons and also because it gives an interesting insight into how much things are actually worth in this country and b) you see how the locals eat - where they go, what they order, how they eat it.
Some of the best food from my trip was consumed during a motorbike stop. Many of these 'restaurants' seemed actually to be the converted living rooms of houses lining the roads - sometimes you'd be sitting at a plastic table slurping noodle soup while the children and teenagers of the house lounged around on hammocks and watched cartoons. One house we visited had a group of tiny-eyed puppies in the back yard, which couldn't have been more than a week old. On the ride to Hoi An, I ate the best rice dish I think I've ever had (see above) - fried rice with seafood and pineapple. It was a delectable combination of incredibly fresh seafood, juicy pineapple, tart tomatoes, caramelised onion, and slightly spicy aromatic rice, complete proof of the fact that in simplicity lies deliciousness.
Combine this gastronomic pleasure with the absolutely incredible views of bright, bright blue sky, emerald ocean and mountainous terrain that were also part of our ride to Hoi An, and you have a pretty memorable day. We stopped at 'Elephant Springs' along the way, for no other reason than to allow us to swim around in a waterfall and jump repeatedly off a giant stone elephant sculpture. We saw Danang, and I was glad I hadn't included this industrial beach resort town in our itinerary. I got hideously sunburnt, unable to feel the power of the midday sun, masked as it was by the wind rushing past the motorbike. This was all forgotten after a few days in Hoi An, however.
Hoi An is a beautiful little riverside town. It's the tailoring capital of Vietnam, and shops advertising personalised clothing made in hours are on every single corner. There isn't much of note to do, but you can happily pass your time browsing the huge number of souvenir shops, getting clothes made (in my case two shirts, a skirt and a ballgown, while the female Vietnamese shop assistants cooed over my 'beautiful' white skin and 'golden' hair, which in England would simply be perceived as 'pasty' and 'brown'), sipping fruit smoothies at stalls by the river, marvelling at the fresh produce of the markets, and sampling the food, which is surprisingly good and untainted for a tourist town.
Or you could also do as I did, and go on a cookery class with the Red Bridge cookery school.
After a serene ride down the river, with verdant palm-tree lined banks on both side, you arrive at a little oasis of calm and culinary accomplishment. You wander around its kitchen garden, and if you're anything like me you'll marvel at the sight of lemongrass growing out of the ground, and keep smelling curious herbs like 'pineapple basil'. You then watch as a chef demonstrates how to make a series of dishes, and - if you have the same chef as me - laugh at his ridiculous and occasionally mildly offensive banter. You try everything he makes, proclaiming how good it is, particularly enjoying the seafood stir-fry served in a hollowed fresh pineapple. You then have a go for yourself, learning how to ladle thick rice batter onto muslin over a pot of water to make squidgy rice pancakes for stuffing; learning how to stir-fry aubergine with garlic, lemongrass and ginger to make a delicious spicy stew; learning how to pour rice batter into a hot, smoking pan to make the crispy pancake you tried in Hanoi.
I had a brilliant time learning to cook Vietnamese food, and found myself barely able to eat the lunch they provided for us (mackerel grilled in banana leaf, see above), so much had we eaten over the course of the morning while we cooked. The beautiful setting of the cookery school, the fact that it has its own outdoor pool which you can use (in retrospect, not the best idea after ingesting such a huge quantity of food - I'm surprised I didn't drown) and the entertaining chefs would make it enjoyable even if you weren't that into cooking, but as I am, I relished the opportunity to attempt Vietnamese food, and learn a little bit of what makes this country's cuisine so special.
Hoi An brought more delicious food, mostly at the Morning Glory 'street food restaurant', which also has its own cooking school. This place aims to reproduce the street food classics of Vietnam, but in a slightly more formal setting, along with some other more modern dishes invented by its own chefs. On our first visit here I had a local speciality, Cao Lao - a salty broth with herbs, marinated pork and crispy flat croutons, with a tangle of very thick noodles, much thicker than I had tried before in Vietnam. It was deeply moreish and savoury, the ultimate comfort food. Apparently all Cao Lao noodles are made with water from the Ba Le well in Hoi An, but I'm pretty sure this is just an urban myth. The exact recipe is also a closely guarded secret.
On our third night we also ate at Morning Glory, where I had my first taste of pomelo salad and started a new addiction. The sweet, juicy flesh of the pomelo - like a milder, sweeter, larger grapefruit - coupled with the traditional sweet/sharp/salty/sour Vietnamese salad dressing, coupled with crunchy peanuts, crunchy vegetables and - optionally - prawns or meat, is an absolute delight for the tastebuds. It tastes healthy, nourishing, yet its contrast of textures and flavours make it a real treat. I also had a delicious smoky marinated mackerel, wrapped in a banana leaf. Wrapping meat or fish in these leaves and grilling them has an amazing ability to preserve the moist succulence of it while lending an addictive smoky flavour.
Hoi An was where I tried my first banh mi (glamorously perched on my rucksack, above - no time for food styling on holiday!) This is another classic Vietnamese street/snack food, and its exact makeup varies. Generally, however, our banh mi were usually a sturdy baguette (Vietnamese baguettes are fatter than French ones, and have a much crispier crust with a very airy, fluffy interior) stuffed with crunchy pickled vegetables, various cuts of pork, some pork pâté, salad, and - optionally - chilli sauce and garlic mayonnaise. They are, it has to be said, the ultimate sandwich. Way better than a BLT or a brie and bacon, they are again a masterclass in texture and flavour contrast, plus deeply satisfying food to eat on the go. We got ours from reportedly the best banh mi stand in Hoi An, and they didn't disappoint.
I also first tried sugar cane juice in Hoi An. I had no idea what to expect when I watched a man use a purpose-built machine to crush thick shards of sugar cane into a clear, frothy and slightly green-tinged liquid, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sugar cane juice is not nearly as sweet as its name would suggest. It has a mellow, sweet, refreshing flavour that is hard to describe - rather like one of those citrus-flavoured mineral waters you can buy. I think sometimes it's mixed with lime juice before serving. Anyway, it's possibly the most refreshing thing I drunk on my entire trip, and when we cycled the Mekong Delta a week or so later, in 36C heat and at considerable speed, it was the most welcome thing ever to pass my lips.
Hoi An provided me with my first dessert of my entire trip. Vietnam isn't big on desserts, like many Asian countries. They have their share of strange bean cakes, but generally your sweet fix will come from a smoothie or some fruit from a roadside stall, if you're desperate for it. However, one of the restaurants I ate at in Hoi An had a very Westernised dessert menu, and I couldn't resist ordering ice cream in various tropical flavours (ginger, lemongrass, and cinnamon, I think); I also returned to its cafe one afternoon, in need of sugar, and ate a delicious piece of pineapple upside-down cake and ice cream. It was nice to indulge in something a bit more unhealthy than all the virtuous lean meat, fish and noodle dishes we'd been subsisting on so far. That said, I didn't find myself missing Western desserts and cakes after a while, and returned to the UK with noble intentions to cut all such things out of my diet and maintain this healthy Asian way of living. You can imagine how long that lasted.
Onwards, to Nha Trang, apparently the party capital of Vietnam - so god knows what I was doing there. Ah yes, I went for the diving. We did two dives off the coast, which was wonderful for me because it was the first recreational diving I'd ever done. I learned to dive with the Royal Navy in Gibraltar, and as you can imagine it was pretty hardcore (as discussed in my post here), mostly safety stuff and obsessive briefing. Here we swam around and looked at pretty fishes, and there was no requirement to separate myself from my breathing and/or vision equipment - score! I saw lionfish, scorpion fish, rainbow fish, and my first octopus, which was not impressed at being poked with a stick and squidged threateningly out of his hiding place.
There isn't much to say about Nha Trang, in terms of food, as I don't really remember eating much of it for some reason. I do remember a slightly traumatic second night there, which saw me wandering around the city at night (a crazy medley of rushing motorbikes and neon lights advertising Westernised bars and drinks deals) feeling hideously emotional and unsure whether to throw myself under a passing moped or go and get some pho. I opted for the latter, seeing as the Vietnamese motorbike drivers are so good at avoiding obstacles that I'd probably just have ended up standing in the road being beeped at. The pho was your standard bowl of noodley broth, but, as chicken soup is so reportedly adept at doing, it quieted my raging soul a little and let me leave my worries behind, lost in the ritual of slurping and twining noodles round chopsticks. A true testament to the power of food.
Further escapism came in the form of a three-day motorbike tour of the central highlands of Vietnam. This would take us from Nha Trang to Dalat and back again, via, oh, just the most incredible scenery you've ever witnessed in your life. Well, I suppose that depends on how exciting and travel-heavy your life has been, but this certainly made a lasting impression on me. My photos of the central highlands don't really do it justice, because it's hard to grasp the sweeping majesty of the panoramic vistas when rendered in 2D. Suffice to say, though, that it was incredible. I've said 'lush vegetation' quite a few times above, in reference to Phong Nha, but this was even lusher, if that's a word (which Blogger spellcheck tells me it isn't).
We passed sugar cane plantations, coffee bean plantations, beautiful verdant rice paddies, towering hills lined with palm trees. We frequently had to come to a screeching halt to allow crowds of pigs, goats or water buffalo to meander at their own pace across the roads. We stopped at a huge waterfall and clambered around slippery muddy rocks to try and get closer to where it hit the river.
The downside to going up 1500m into the mountains is that we got drenched. I remember several hours of biking through thick cloud that poured rain onto us with a vengeance, thanking heaven for the visor on my helmet. Our motorbike guides had, of course, come prepared for this. I was given some very durable thick green waterproofs, which made my journey a bit of a breeze, as the only bit of me getting wet was my feet. My travelling companion was not so lucky - he was given a flimsy neon yellow rain poncho, which kept his torso dry but not much else, and that was when it hadn't ripped to pieces, as those things do easily.
Our motorbike guides were, I suspect, completely and utterly mad. They were also great fun, largely because we had no idea where we were going or what we were doing most of the time, so never knew what to expect. Our trips were frequently punctuated with stops for hot tea: the cooler temperatures of the highlands made this a real reward, and that was the only tea I managed to drink in Vietnam, it being too damn hot the rest of the time to stomach it. This also meant that our first food stop, where we ate a delicious broth with shrimp and pork meatballs and rice noodles, was also the first time I'd eaten noodle soup when I wasn't sweating profusely from the humidity.
I don't think we got the most favourable impression of Dalat. Supposed to be incredibly beautiful, like a cross between Vietnam and the French riviera, Dalat is where many Vietnamese go for their honeymoon (including our motorbike driver). However, we arrived in the dusk, in the pouring rain, and went straight to our hotel, where we shivered away wishing we'd thought to bring jumpers or socks - it was like England in temperature. We went and had something to eat, wandered around a little night market where I tried artichoke tea (as horrible as it sounds), but were so exhausted by the journey and the cold that we just went to bed afterwards. The next morning we left early.
I'm sure Dalat has its charms, but unfortunately I never saw them. It's known, though, for its flower and fruit/vegetable production - because its climate is so much cooler than the rest of Vietnam, things can be grown there that you won't find elsewhere, like strawberries, artichokes, and a huge variety of fresh flowers. We visited one of the huge greenhouses where they grow these flowers. I nearly bought a jar of Dalat strawberry jam, before remembering that I come from England, where the strawberry is pretty much our national fruit. I also remember passing lots of persimmon orchards on our journey, and seeing huge bags of them piled up by the road, waiting to be transported somewhere. For some reason they harvest them when they're green, which I presume means underripe. I wonder why - perhaps for making some kind of chutney or paste for savoury cooking, perhaps.
It does amaze me a bit that the Vietnamese use unripe papaya and mango so much in their cooking - when unripe, the taste of these is pretty similar to any crunchy vegetable, so it seems like such a waste, when a ripe, golden papaya or mango is such a beautiful thing!
On our way to the next stop, we paused to visit the 'weasel coffee' farm. If you haven't heard of weasel coffee, it's basically as follows: in the past, weasels in the wild would eat coffee beans. They were discerning, and would only sniff out and eat the best coffee beans. Some bright spark came up with the idea of harvesting the beans that the weasels had excreted, and grinding it to brew coffee. The result is hugely expensive and considered a real delicacy in the coffee world. However, the practice has become hugely industrialised, and weasels are now just kept in small cages and force-fed coffee beans. This means that they are constantly high on caffeine and unable to sleep, and the entire practice is just disgusting. I was really upset at seeing the poor weasels in their cages, some chasing their tails out of madness, some simply slumped in a corner having appeared to give up hope. I was really tempted to let them out of their cages, but figured it wasn't really my place to do that. Our guides asked us if we wanted to try the coffee, but I refused; I was so horrified by the sight of the weasels. If you do ever go to south east Asia, and are offered weasel coffee, I'd urge you to think twice about implicitly condoning something so awful.
Our next stop was Dak Lak, a beautiful lake in the middle of the highlands. We stayed in a small village there, and when I went for a walk by the lake at sunset (spectacular views), I was accosted by some of the local children. All they could say in English was 'hello', but they made up for the language barrier by shouting it with great vehemence while they waved and made the peace sign at me. I took a photo of them with my camera, and they were mesmerised to see themselves appear in the little preview screen. They also didn't seem to grasp how cameras work, that you're supposed to stand still for photos - so I have about fifty photos of various blurry Vietnamese children in a state of wild excitement. It was lovely, though - they were so friendly.
The food at Dak Lak was nothing too exciting, but very good. The best part was the stir-fried 'morning glory', a long, green leafy vegetable that frequently appeared as a side dish to meals in Vietnam. It seems to be fried with garlic until tender but still crunchy, and is really delicious - I could eat it by the plateful with just some rice for dinner.
The next day we rode an elephant, which would perhaps have been more exciting had our elephant not been the most reluctant quadruped in the history of the earth, more concerned with stopping and wrapping its trunk around various items of foliage than actually carrying us anywhere. I know this because the man riding behind us, who got on his elephant about half an hour after we got on ours, overtook us. The elephant took us through the lake, which was quite funny - its little trunk stuck up like a periscope, and every now and again it would grab at some lotus plants from under the water.
Then, a mere 240km on the bike later, we were back in Nha Trang. I remember the return journey because we stopped for some of the most amazing seafood I've ever eaten, again in one of those little roadside establishments that seems to be more like someone's house. There was a fish and tamarind soup, some spicy grilled fish steaks (I think tuna), stir-fried squid with pineapple, mango salad, and fried whole white fish. I remember our guides being apologetic, saying that because it was seafood it would be a bit more expensive than our meals had been so far. By this, they meant it would cost £2 instead of the usual £1.50. I couldn't believe it, and told them that the same meal would probably cost around £40 in England. They laughed, thinking I was exaggerating.
That night, we took the overnight bus from Nha Trang to Saigon. We stocked up on banh mi for the journey, and also these lovely little buns that were like Chinese barbecue pork buns, except they cost about 5p, not the £4 or so you pay in England. There were white ones with a meat filling, and pale green ones with a sweet desiccated coconut filling, which were so tasty - the perfect travelling food.
The bus was clearly designed with no human being in mind, and was one of the least comfortable experiences of my life. I didn't sleep at all. However, the experience prompted me to seek out a breakfast more indulgent than the baguette and eggs offered by our hotel, and for this I thank it, because we discovered a great little roadside cafe just outside the hotel that made the most wonderful fruit salads and pancakes.
Every morning in Saigon for four days we would go there, and I would order a pancake, either pineapple or mango, and a plate of ripe papaya. The pancake was a giant crepe, crispy on the outside and soft in the centre, folded around a golden mass of juicy, stickily ripe pineapple or mango. The papaya was the most incredible marigold colour, so much more vivid than I've ever encountered over in the UK, and meltingly delicious. Honestly, remembering those breakfasts makes me almost want to cry. It was such a nice experience just to sit there and watch the bustle of Saigon's backpacker district going noisily past while indulging in my favourite thing, exotic fruit. I did, though, in a nod to my native country, order a Lipton's tea one morning. Unfortunately I forgot that tea cools down to drinking temperature in the UK in about four minutes, but in Vietnam, where the air is practically the same temperature as the just-brewed tea, it takes somewhat longer. Burnt mouth.
.As an interlude during our time in Saigon, we took a two-day cycling tour of the Mekong Delta. You can do this tour by boat, but I'm so glad we cycled it. You get to see things that you wouldn't see from sitting on a crowded tourist boat, plus you completely exhaust yourself, in a good way. I think we cycled more than 30 miles each day, or around 6 hours, which when you consider the rough, often very muddy terrain, and the 36-37C heat, makes for a pretty tiring trip. There was also the rain, which made the ground almost impassably muddy in places. Mekong mud is brick-red, and I can confirm that even five washes will still not remove it entirely from a white T-shirt. I can't remember if our bikes had mudguards, but the state of our besplattered backs definitely suggested otherwise. Plus, helmet hair after all that humidity? Not an attractive thing (see photo below for proof).
Despite the lack of glamour, it was a great trip. The highlight of the first day was travelling through durian fruit orchards, where I finally got to sample this infamous fruit. If you haven't heard of the durian fruit, you clearly need to up your fruit-based knowledge. This gigantic, spiky fruit is notorious throughout Asia for its pungent smell, often described to resemble rotting flesh. So powerful is this aroma that the fruit is banned on most forms of public transport. I've seen stalls selling durian fruit in Chinatown in London, and they always display signs stating that you cannot return or refund the fruits, presumably because people buy them, get them home, and then worry they've brought Satan in fruit form into their kitchens.
Naturally, I was expecting revelations from this fruit. It certainly has a forbidding exterior. Some durian fruits reach at least a foot in size. Their spiky outer casing is incredibly sharp - if one fell from a tree onto your head, I reckon you'd definitely be brain damaged, if not dead. Inside, there are several fruits, round or oblong shaped, a pale yellow colour with a texture that slightly resembles banana and a big stone inside. Our guide cut one open and handed me a piece.
I sniffed it. There was no recoiling from the assault of rotting flesh, no wrinkling of the nose. In fact, I realised that the smell of the durian fruit was something I'd been inhaling for most of my trip in Vietnam so far. Its sickly sweet pungency pervades the markets and street stalls; although durian are usually sold intact, or peeled but tightly wrapped in cling film, so strong is their scent that it somehow gets everywhere, overwhelming anything else in the air.
It's not nearly as hideous as I'd been led to believe. I'd say the smell is more like rotting fruit - a very sweet sickliness that reminds me of the smell of dustbin trucks. It's really not that unpleasant. I tasted the fruit, which has a texture somewhere between buffalo mozzarella and banana, in that its stringy but also squidgy and mushy at the same time. I have to say, I quite liked it. The American boys in our tour group had been going on about how disgusting it was and how they'd tried it the day before and still couldn't get the revolting taste out of their mouths.
I told them to man up. It was fine, and actually quite nice. It occurred to me that its sweet, vanilla-y, almost custard-like nature would work very well in an ice cream. (And a few days later I tried just that, at an ice cream parlour in Cambodia - but read on for that...) However, it was so sickly sweet that I could only manage a few mouthfuls. It's not something I'd crave and eat by the bowlful, unlike papaya and mango, or my new favourites, mangosteens.
We also tried rambutans on our bike ride, as they were being sold in huge piles by the side of the road. These taste a little like lychees, but their texture is much firmer, they are round instead of oval, and they have much less perfume and juice about them. They're more subtle and crunchy, and a great snack for exhausted, saddle-sore, sweating cyclists. We also sampled jackfruit, which is a beautiful glossy yellow colour and has a firm, crunchy texture and delicate flavour. It reminded me a little of crunchy persimmon fruit.
The food on our cycle tour was excellent, often prepared in the homes or restaurants of the local residents. Seafood and fish were the staples: fat grilled prawns with lime juice and salt, crispy 'elephant ear' fish shredded and placed into fresh spring rolls with noodles and herbs, banh xao pancakes, lemongrass chicken, tamarind fish soup, fresh pomelo, taro chips. On the second day we watched the locals making coconut candy, which is a sort of caramel-like sweet made with coconut milk, and popped rice - like rice crispies, made by tossing rice around a very hot wok.
You can see why they call the Mekong Delta the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam - its proximity to the river and its lush, fertile vegetation, fruits burdening the boughs of their trees, suggests abundance and plenty. I'd like to have seen more of the different towns along the river, but I think our two-day preview was a good introduction. A particular highlight was on day one: sheltering from a sudden tropical downpour, we ended up packed into a sort of corrugated iron bus shelter with a load of the local Vietnamese. Unable to speak a word of English, and us barely able to speak any Vietnamese, the only logical consequence followed: the boys in our group ended up in a furious arm-wrestling contest with a strapping young Vietnamese man. Much hilarity (and shouting) was had on both sides.
After returning to Saigon and spending the morning being driven to the 'Chinatown' area and back on a rickshaw, we took a 45-minute flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia, which has the cutest airport ever - basically a little wooden hut surrounded by palm trees. After a short tuk-tuk ride we found our hotel, the wonderful Golden Banana - if you're going to Siam Reap, stay here. The rooms are beautiful, the courtyard gardens are gorgeous, the pool is fantastic and the food is great. We explored the town in the evening.
I was expecting Siam Reap to be simply a convenient location to stay to access the temples of Angkor Wat (which is why we were there), but it's a pretty little town in its own right. Quite touristy, yes, but in a charming rather than a nauseating way. The locals were much friendlier than in Vietnam, although infinitely more hassley in trying to get you to buy their stuff. After a while I managed to acclimatise my ears not to take in the constant cries of 'Hello lady, you buy something?' One shopkeeper adopted the interesting tactic of whining shrilly at us until we were forced to give in. The market is fantastic, particularly the food section, where I bought big bags of palm sugar and dried coconut powder, along with lime leaf tea which is delicious.
Apart from a visit to Tonle Sap, the gigantic lake in the centre of Cambodia where we visited a fishing village, a crocodile farm and got to hold a python, we spent pretty much all of our time in Siam Reap at the Angkor Wat complex. Suffice to say it's one of those tourist attractions that is totally worth it. You could spend weeks wandering the atmospheric ruins, pretending you're in Tomb Raider and marvelling at the ingenuity of the builders of the past. My favourite temples were those that had been completely overgrown by trees, some with roots bigger than me, snaking their way amongst the stones and causing walls to crumble under their weight.
Surrounded by unbelievably green vegetation and palm trees, the temples were quite something. My favourite was Bantreay Srei, 30km outside Siam Reap and surrounded by moats, featuring some wonderful stone carvings of monkeys. The weather was ridiculously humid the whole time, which made clambering over ruins a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, some enterprising Cambodian women had set up shop outside the temples selling sticky rice cakes - sweet banana encased in sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled until the outside turned crunchy and caramelised while the inside was gooey, sweet and sticky. These were the most delicious snack, sweet, filling and incredibly moreish. Better still, they cost a dollar for two (see below).
We ate very well in Siam Reap. On our first night we had fresh spring rolls and seafood fried rice with pineapple at a family-run street food stall. Our waiter was an adorable little boy who seemed to take great pride in this role. On the second night we ate at the Golden Banana, and I had my first taste of 'Amok', one of Cambodia's most famous dishes. This is basically fish in a coconut curry broth, but the hotel variation was fish steamed in a banana leaf and topped with an incredible concentrated coconut sauce; sweet, rich and spicy, it was fabulous against the tender smoky fish. We then had another version of this the next day at the temples. Sweating, exhausted and in desperate need of sustenance, we were advised by our tuk-tuk driver to eat at a little souvenir stall in front of one of the temples. It was the kind of place I'd normally avoid like the plague, being smack bang in the middle of a tourist attraction, featuring a lurid yellow 'English menu', and therefore inevitably offering inferior overpriced food. Yet when our food arrived - a huge bowl of steaming, vivid green broth, rich with coconut milk and sweet/sour/salty in that beautiful way south-east Asian broths are, containing juicy chunks of meaty fish (see below) - I was forced to eat both my lunch and my words.
That's the great thing about south-east Asia - places that in Europe would be awful eating establishments often produce the most delicious food. Our amok was fresh and absolutely delicious, just the thing for reviving our tired souls. Similarly, we had another excellent meal at a touristy restaurant near the temples - stir-fried chicken with pineapple and tomato, which sounds bizarre but is a great combination, the sweetness of the pineapple balancing the savoury acidic tomato.
We ate twice at Haven, a restaurant that provides work for orphaned Cambodian children (one of the things that struck me while visiting both the town and the countryside of Siam Reap was how many social welfare projects the Cambodians have going on). The food here was excellent: both times I had salads, the first a green mango version and the second a chicken and banana flower one. These were quite typical south-east Asian salads: crunchy vegetables with a sweet/sour/salty dressing, perfect for the humid weather.
Also perfect was the ice cream from Blue Pumpkin Café, which I'm devastated we only found on our last day. There were about thirty different flavours, so many of them unusual and incredibly enticing: ginger and black sesame; lemon and kaffir lime; banana and galangal; dragon fruit; pineapple and candied pineapple; honey and star anise...I had real trouble deciding, but eventually had a gigantic bowl of ginger and black sesame, four spice (which tasted a bit like mixed spice made into ice cream - delicious), and durian fruit. I did think when I tried the durian fruit that it would make good ice cream, and I wasn't wrong - it has a lovely sweet custardy flavour to it which works very well combined with sugar and frozen.
Our flight back from Siam Reap to Saigon was atrocious. We took off into a lightning storm, and the plane was thrown around from side to side in the turbulence. I honestly, hand on heart, thought I was going to die. Everyone else on the plane was shrieking, and I promptly burst into hysterical tears. Perhaps alarmingly, my first thought was not for the value of my own life or the inevitable grief of my family, but instead of what a shame it would be if all the beautiful things I had bought in the Siam Reap market were to end up smouldering in the wreckage of the plane. So at least I have my priorities sorted.
When we made it to Saigon alive and intact, I nearly wept with relief. I was in such a good mood I sang along loudly to our taxi driver's CD of power ballads as we zigzagged through the nighttime bustle of Saigon. There was only one thing that was going to calm my agitated nerves, and that was a big bowl of beef pho, eaten at a streetside cafe overlooking a madly busy road alight with speeding mopeds. It seemed only fitting to end our trip with that most simple but delicious Asian classic.
And that was my frenetic, beautiful, terrifying, delicious trip around Vietnam and Cambodia. It was without doubt the best four weeks of my life, and has instilled me with both a fervent desire to go back to that part of the world, and a passionate love of south-east Asian food, a cuisine I wasn't hugely keen on before I went. The combination of seriously comforting ingredients - rice, noodles, meat, coconut, broth - with sharp, vibrant dressings and crunchy vegetables is just unbeatable.
I've often found myself returning from European holidays feeling disgusting and in need of a long session in the pool or on the treadmill and a desire to eat nothing but leaves for a week; not so with Vietnam and Cambodia, where every day I felt healthy and full of energy thanks to the nourishing food. The Vietnamese and the Cambodians really do know how to make the most of contrasting textures and flavours in their food.
It's luxurious and nutritious at the same time, the perfect fuel for a life lived in the hectic, humid madness of these two incredible countries.
I've just returned, jet-lagged and completely dazzled by my month-long trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll be posting more about my trip in due course, but for now I want to share a little post about breakfast, my favourite meal of the day; particularly when the day promises to be a hot and humid one full of stunning scenery, tasty food and Asian splendour.
Breakfast in Vietnam falls into two categories: what the locals eat, and what you find in all the hotels catering for Western palates. In the former category you have pho, the 'national dish of Vietnam', a rich meaty broth housing a comforting combination of slippery rice noodles, fresh herbs, and tender pieces of (usually) chicken or beef. (More on this in another post - I too, with my Western sweet tooth, was sceptical about the notion of noodles for breakfast, but I soon became a convert.)
In the latter category, you have the usual suspects such as eggs, omelettes and baguettes, but also recognisably Western dishes given a bit of tropical flair, like these pineapple pancakes.
I first sampled these pancakes at our hotel in Hanoi. I was a little sceptical, I admit, about ordering a menu item that simply read 'pineapple pancake'. Can you guess why? Yes, dear readers who know me and my boundless greed: because it was in the singular. One pancake is simply not sufficient for my morning appetite. A bit like I'm incapable of ever ordering only one scoop of ice cream, a habit that has earned me the somewhat unflattering nickname 'Triple-Scoop McCausland'.
However, I persevered, because it's simply impossible to go hungry in Vietnam: should the single pancake prove insufficient, I thought to myself, I'll just go to the smoothie bar at the end of the road and get a papaya and coconut cream smoothie (as incredible as it sounds). Or get a plump, ripe mango from one of the many streetside fruit sellers. Or a baguette from the numerous French-inspired bakeries.
I was wrong to doubt our lovely hotel. A few minutes later I was presented with two fat pancakes, rather like crêpes but thicker, into which slices of pineapple had been pressed as the batter was cooking, resulting in sweet golden streaks of caramelised fruit. If you've only ever eaten pineapple raw, without subjecting it to the transformative treatment of heat, sugar, butter, and possibly a little vanilla, a splash of rum, a squeeze of lime or a sprinkling of cinnamon, then you need to sort your life out.
Pineapple when cooked transforms into the most utterly delectable, sweet, tangy, juicy mouthful. Combine this with a soft pillow of pancake batter and you have a dreamy plate of tropical sunshine.
I ate these beautiful creations again during our stay at Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (see photo below), my favourite stop of the whole trip and a place I'm sure I'll be telling you more about. Here I was given a plate of four, which was lucky because we'd just arrived from the overnight train and were feeling a little, well, ravenous (also sweaty, greasy and disgusting, but the hunger thing was the most pressing issue). They came rolled up into little cigars, each one boasting a golden and juicy centre of caramelised pineapple. This is what I've tried to recreate here.
This is a highly simple recipe, but one of those that is more than the sum of its parts. You make a simple crêpe batter (milk, eggs, flour), cook it into pancakes slightly thicker than the delicate French variety, then fill the lot with chopped pineapple that has been cooked over a high heat with a little butter, some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of vanilla. It turns sweet, jammy and delicious; a beautiful contrast to the thick and comforting squidgyness of the pancakes.
I made these three days after my return from Vietnam, to try and distract myself from what is a pretty bad case of post-holiday blues. I feel completely deflated, like I've been brought back to earth with a horrible bump (and actually, our flight landing at Heathrow was pretty bumpy). In many respects, England couldn't be more different to South-East Asia, and instead of relishing home comforts after a month of travelling, I'm starting to find them grating and alien, particularly where food is concerned.
Why do we happily pay around £20 for a meal in this country? After eating some of the best food of my life for under £1 in Vietnam, it genuinely pains me a bit to have to contemplate ever eating out in England again. Why do we have such gigantic dinner plates and therefore habitually scoff such enormous portions? No wonder we're all obese. Everything in Vietnam is served in tiny little bowls; not only that, but the rice comes out last, so you're mostly too full from good things like fish, meat and vegetables to contemplate ingesting nutritionally void carbohydrates.
Why do we eat with cumbersome and unwieldy knives and forks? Why do we cover everything in fat, especially cheese, when food can be so fabulously delicious without it? Why are we so obsessed with desserts and with sugar? Why is our 'exotic' fruit always rock-hard and underripe?
I'm sure I'll be back to my usual self in a few weeks, but right now I just feel desperately sad, pining for somewhere on the other side of the world that has called into question everything that once seemed normal to me.
On the plus side, though, there's nothing like a month away in exotic climes to put everything into perspective. Food, although probably my number one source of enjoyment in life, is far too frequently my number one source of stress, too. I have a tendency to get a little obsessive and perfectionist in the kitchen, constantly inviting friends over for lunch, dinner or breakfast and feeling that I have to present them with some Masterchef-worthy creation when deep down I know they'd probably be happy with a bowl of pasta and a cup of tea. I too often find myself rushing around town, making numerous shopping trips for ingredients because I know that the Asian grocers on the other side of town do better chickpeas than the supermarket, and the bread stall on the market does better bread than Tesco, and this fishmonger is better than that one, and panicking if I can't find a certain obscure ingredient that I deem crucial to the success of one dish, sometimes travelling miles out of my way to get it.
It's had me close to tears on several occasions, usually when I finally make it to the checkout and there is a queue and my arms are hurting from holding a heavy basket and I'm contemplating how on earth to get everything home on my bike without it squashing or falling out, and then the final straw is when the self-service checkout refuses to work properly (when does this ever not happen, I hear you cry), and I start hitting things. I've driven myself mad trying to frantically write blog posts to various deadlines - many of which are completely self-imposed and therefore fundamentally meaningless - trying to take artful photos of my cooking when all I really want to do is just eat the damn thing, trying to think of new and exciting recipes to share with you all when all I really want to do is tuck into a big bowl of pasta with nutmeg and grated parmesan.
Having a month off cooking and worrying about food shopping was utterly blissful. Savouring the simple pleasures of Vietnam, like a bowl of plain rice noodles with fresh herbs, or a perfect juicy mangosteen, or a delicious piece of tender lemongrass-coated chicken, has impressed upon me the madness of the way in which I live in relation to food.
Food should be, primarily, something that brings joy, not stress and tears. I contemplated returning to cooking and food blogging with dread and trepidation during my final few days in Asia, asking myself what it was all for, whether anyone really cared, why I torment myself with all this for no apparent reason. I had wild ideas about giving up food and the blog altogether, about shutting myself off from the world of food magazines, food journalism, cooking TV; the faux-drama of things like Masterchef and Great British Menu suddenly seemed laughably trivial - crass, even - compared to the very real drama of fast-paced life in Vietnam.
But then Sunday morning happened, and all I wanted was to get into the kitchen and to rustle up a batch of pineapple pancakes to remind me of my holiday. That's when I realised that, of course, food can be a wonderful thing, provided it is not taken too seriously. It is a means of reviving happy memories, of sharing experiences, of creating ties. It shouldn't be stressful or a source of anxiety, when done properly with just the right amount of care and good humour.
I'm really writing this to myself, in the hope that I'll remember all these things in the future, when my basket is heavy and the self-service checkout isn't working and I still have to bike to the other side of town to get some pomegranate molasses from the Asian grocer before rushing home to see if my bread has risen and my home-made cheese has firmed up.
However, I'm sure many of you out there will be able to relate. Then again, you've probably sensibly realised this already. I just needed four weeks on the other side of the world to come to this conclusion.
So for that, Vietnam, and those pineapple pancakes: thank you.
Pineapple pancakes (serves 2 very generously, or 4 less hungry people):
- 200g flour (I used spelt flour, but ordinary would be fine)
- 2 eggs
- 600ml milk
- Pinch salt
- Butter, for cooking
- 1 medium pineapple, cut into small thin chunks
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Icing sugar, for dusting
First, make the pancake batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, then make a well in the centre with a spoon and add the eggs. Pour in a little of the milk then, using an electric whisk, whisk the egg and milk into the flour, gradually incorporating more flour as you add the rest of the milk. You should end up with a thin, lump-free batter. Add the salt and whisk again.
Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Heat a knob of butter in a large non-stick saucepan or frying pan until sizzling, then add the pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until caramelised and sticky, and most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the vanilla. Set aside and keep warm.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and get some more sheets of greaseproof ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan, around 25cm in diameter, very hot, then add a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan. Wipe off any excess with kitchen paper, spreading the butter over the base of the pan, then pour a ladleful of batter onto the pan - you want a pancake about 5mm thick. Cook for a minute on one side, then flip over using a palette knife and cook for another minute. When done, place on the greaseproof paper on the baking sheet, then put in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining mixture, layering the pancakes between greaseproof as you go and keeping them warm in the oven.
When ready to serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of pineapple mixture in the centre of each pancake, then roll it up. Dust with icing sugar and devour, preferably with tea.
Avid readers of this blog may remember that back in March I was invited to take part in the Chablis blogger challenge, which involved suggesting dishes to pair with two bottles of Chablis I was sent in the post. (Yes, it's a hard life. If you're thinking of getting into food blogging, do consider it carefully - you never know when you might find yourself in the desperate and tragic situation of having to accept free wine). I came up with this four-course tasting menu, inspired by the Burgundy region of France and featuring dishes that I, lacking any knowledge whatsoever about wine and food matching, thought worked pretty well with the bottles I received.
Much to my delight, I won the challenge. My hard work eating cheese, curing salmon and making biscuits paid off, and I won a trip to the town of Chablis a couple of weekends ago, which included a place on the Balade Gourmande, a 12km walking tour around the vineyards of Chablis with stops to drink wine and eat a five-course lunch along the way. I'm sure I've put you off food blogging now, haven't I?
Chablis is a well-kept secret. It's not particularly easy to access - apparently they have not yet started work on the high-speed Cambridge-Chablis train line, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. We went to Paris via the Eurostar, then had to catch a train to Laroche-Migennes, which is on the main line to Dijon. A 30-minute taxi ride later, and we found ourselves in Chablis. All this time I'd been rhetorically asking why we couldn't just get a train to Chablis itself.
The answer soon became apparent when we explored the town a little further - it has only 2,700 inhabitants and you can circumnavigate it in about the same time it would take to circumnavigate a large branch of Tesco. This, however, lends it a certain charm.
The first accounts of Chablis date from the year 510, when a small monastery was founded there. Around three hundred years later, the monks of Tours sought refuge there when fleeing from the Vikings, and the wine-making tradition of Chablis begun; monks were synonymous with wine production in the Middle Ages, as they required it both for religious ceremonies and for entertaining and lending prestige to the abbeys. Gradually the reputation of Chablis grew, and the wine was exported to England. By the 19th century, it was also exported to Holland, Belgium, Germany, the US and Russia (there's a mention of it in Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina).
Unfortunately, 'Chablis' has now come to describe almost any white wine, regardless of origin or grape. Because of this, in recent years the Chablis winemakers have fought hard to protect their origins, pressuring foreign countries to recognise their region on wine labels; it now has an AOC qualification meaning only wine produced in Chablis can officially bear the name.
True Chablis is made from chardonnay grapes only, and has been recognised as possessing one of the 'purest' tastes of any chardonnay wine due to the simple, traditional winemaking style still used in the region, and its distinct terroir and climate. Chablis is frequently described as a 'flinty' or 'steely' wine, though Grand Cru and Premier Cru can be aged for around fifteen and ten years respectively, developing honeyed aromas with age. It was fascinating to imagine that all this distinguished wine was being produced in an area with such a tiny town as its epicentre.
Although the town has had its fair share of hardships (it was pillaged by the Hugenots in 1568 and the vineyards destroyed by the phylloxera bug at the end of the 19th century), it remains a successful wine-producing region, largely due to its fertile limestone-rich soils - the Chablis region was once underwater, and its 'Kimmeridgian' soil (so-called after the soils of Kimmeridge in England, as they share the same fossil oysters) is ideal for producing wine.
We stayed at the Relais de la Belle Etoile hotel in the centre of the town, a quaint former coaching inn with lovely old-fashioned rooms (and a great little sign in the bathroom informing guests that they might have to run the tap for a while to wait for hot water in the morning due to the age of the house...but 'When there is no hot water, here we shower with Chablis!'). Also, it had this fantastic car parked below our window, which I can't resist sharing.
Our free time was spent wandering Chablis, which is generally everything you'd expect from a charmingly rustic French town. There were medieval-looking buildings, little winding alleys, a small church and, perhaps less traditional, an overwhelming number of cats. I suggested they should rename the place 'Chatblis', which is the first and probably last French joke I will ever make. We saw a little old French lady open her door and glimpsed about five cats ambling around her heels; whether they belonged to her or she was just a cat lady befriending the strays, I'm not sure. One of these cats seemed to be the sole feline resident of Chablis's only bar (called, appropriately, 'Chablis bar'), and took great delight in claiming possession of various surfaces (tables, people's laps, etc.) by simply sprawling luxuriantly across them.
Every few metres we would pass a 'Cave', a wine cellar offering free wine tastings, though the knowledge that we'd be tasting Chablis all day during the Balade Gourmande prevented us from going in. In retrospect, I wish we had, but I definitely got to experience my fair share of different Chablis wines in the end, so it's not all bad. Plus I was worried I'd be coerced into parting with large amounts of money for high quality wine that I had tasted and become hooked on. Given that I'm becoming a student again next year, I don't think it would be the best time to develop a taste for Chablis Grand Cru.
We wandered along the river, swollen and fast-flowing due to the amount of recent rain (it seems that our Gallic cousins are equally inflicted by bad weather at the moment), where we found the 19th century communal wash house (a sort of pavilion at the edge of the river so you could wash your clothes in it) and eventually ended up at the Pâtis, a stretch of former marshland now planted with trees, where we basked in the sun for a little while. We passed the city gate, known as the Noel-Gate, featuring two medieval-looking round towers, and visited the Petit-Pontigny, a wine cellar built by monks in the 12th century which still remains, though the rest of the buildings were burnt down in 1568 during Protestant plundering. In the courtyard we could see an old wooden lever-beam wine press.
While this was all very exciting, for me the most exciting part was finding this white asparagus at the town grocer (which, incidentally, was better-stocked than most big city grocers in the UK). I've heard of white asparagus but had never seen it in the flesh before; it was curiously beautiful, in an anaemic way, with its delicate purple-hued tips and chunky cream-coloured stems. I bought some to take home. Surely I'm not the first to travel back on the Eurostar with a cargo of asparagus?
I can confirm, two weeks later and having eaten it all, that it tastes exactly like normal asparagus, only slightly more watery. You have to get the idea that you're eating chubby human fingers out of your head, and then it's quite nice.
We ate very well in Chablis, particularly on the first night where we ended up at the kind of French restaurant you often only dream about: simple, rustic, with wooden tables and garishly-coloured water tumblers, paper napkins, and a menu featuring flavoursome, delicious French classics generously portioned. It was called La Feuillette (named after the wooden barrels traditionally used to age the wine in) and conveniently sat right next door to our hotel, so we could just roll into bed after inevitably stuffing ourselves with the wonderful food on offer.
I began with a 'tarte fine' of tomatoes and goat's cheese, which was rather like a tomato tarte tatin. The combination of feather-light flaky pastry with deep, sweet tomatoes and that tangy goat's cheese was just wonderful. Next, an entrecote steak, which the waiter assumed I'd like 'bien cuit' because I am English - I rather indignantly corrected him. It was incredibly tender, slathered in herby butter and served with - rather oddly - a jacket potato, whose contents had been scooped out, mashed with chives and seasoning, then replaced and covered with cheese. Superbe
.Then an unexpected plate of cheese, which I hadn't realised was part of the set menu I'd ordered, or I never would have eaten that entire potato. I had Epoisses, a famous Burgundy cheese that apparently was Napoleon's favourite, and for good reason - it has a sticky orange rind and a gloriously ripe, oozing centre, pungent like camembert but stronger. There was also Chaource, another Burgundy cheese that looks rather like a large goat's cheese, with a chalky white centre that is soft around the edge and almost crumbly in the middle. It's hard to describe its flavour; it's tangy like goat's cheese, but with the creamy softness of a camembert or a Brie. I also had Brie de Meaux, which - as its name suggests - is a Brie produced in the town of Meaux. They were all fabulous, but the Chaource was my particular favourite.
Thank goodness I had room for dessert, because it was the second-best tarte tatin I've ever had in my life (the first was in Nice, and I've reminisced about its glories on this blog before, but basically it involved a flaky, buttery pastry base drenched in caramel and supporting cloud-like chunks of fluffy, juicy, sugar-burnished apple). Like the Nicoise version, this had a barely-there crust, allowing the chunks of apple to really shine in all their caramelly glory, sticky and sweet and slightly charred on top. It was served with a really lovely vanilla ice cream, which I believe is the only true partner to a tarte tatin; I'm sure the garden of Eden featured vanilla pods alongside those legendary apples, so God's favourites could help themselves to a dose of this dessert delight. Or could have if, you know, it wasn't hugely prohibited and would result in their certain damnation.
Naturally I couldn't go to Burgundy without indulging in a spot of boeuf bourgignon, so the following night we went to Le Bistrot Grand Crus, the sister restaurant of the much more glitzy and expensive Hostellerie Clos, which we sadly could not afford (when the desserts are fifteen euros, you know you're in trouble). Here we had a tasty starter of molten goat's cheese on toast, followed by the beefy classic, which was dark, sticky, rich and delicious, laced with smoky bacon and earthy mushrooms and falling apart under the gentle pressure of a fork. It was served with mash and some really fabulous buttery carrots, which were actually my favourite part. You can tell I'm not cut out for this carnivorous French lifestyle...I'm sure they were glad to see me go.
For dessert, another apple tart. This time a tarte aux pommes rather than a tarte tatin - a feathery puff pastry base groaning under the weight of juicy, tangy apple slices; soft and sweet and crispy and buttery, it came in a huge portion - to my delight - and swiftly disappeared. You hear a lot about French restaurants being pretentious and stingy with portion sizes, but in Chablis it's the opposite - this was by far the biggest dessert I've ever eaten in a restaurant (obviously I don't count my own kitchen - when I make desserts for myself, they're generally about the size of the previous course).
On our free afternoon, we wandered over to some of the vineyards at the end of the town, and ended up on a two-hour hike around what I later found out are the Grand Cru vineyards. When driving into Chablis, we saw these gnarled stumps lining the hillsides and figured they were newly-planted vines due to the total lack of growth. However, when we realised all the vineyards looked like this, we concluded they must just prune the vines every year, and these were still waiting for their spring growth; we did see some budding leaves, but generally they bore a rather creepy resemblance to wizened, haggard witches' arms protruding menacingly from the underworld. It was hard to believe these lowly stumps span an area of around 5,000 hectares and produce 35 million bottles of Chablis every year.
We were to find out far more about Chablis viticulture the next day, on the Balade Gourmande. This is a gastronomic walking tour that covers a 12km stretch of the Chablis vineyards, with five stops along the way to drink a glass of Chablis and eat one course of a five-course lunch.
When we woke up on Sunday morning, though, it looked more likely to be a gastronomic swim; torrential rain was battering against the windows while the wind whistled threateningly. Miraculously, it completely cleared up in time for the walk and we ended up with glorious sunshine (though there were still gale-force winds - I know it's windy when I have to take my earrings off because they are acting like small vigorous wind chimes suspended from each of my earlobes).
This was the first year of the Balade, but an amazing 400 guests turned up in the wind to explore the Chablis vineyards and eat along the way. Actually, when you remember that there is a lot of free wine involved, suddenly it makes more sense. My absolute favourite thing about this tour was that at the beginning you were given your own glass to taste the wine in. It was a proper, elegant wine glass with 'Chablis' written on the side. You had a little pouch to put it in and carry it around in, from tasting to tasting. You got to keep the glass afterwards.
This is conclusive proof that the French take these things seriously. If the same event were to be hosted in Britain (OK, pretend we have vineyards for a second), you would so just be given a disposable plastic cup at each stop to sip your lukewarm wine from.
During the tour, we were accompanied by Eric from Au Coeur du Vin, an absolute expert on Chablis and its viticulture, and driver of this fantastic car (her name is 'Lulubelle II', if you're interested; Lulubelle I is, worryingly, dead). He claimed upon meeting us that he spoke only a little English, which soon proved to be completely false as he regaled us throughout the entire tour with perfect, lucid explanations about every single aspect of Chablis wine and wine production.
He told us about how the monks who first settled in Chablis would taste the soil to discover the best places to plant certain grapes; they were so skilled in the art of winemaking that they could use their tastebuds to detect the chemical composition of the earth and its suitability. He gave us a brief history of Chablis winemaking, from this early monastical phase to the devastation of the vines in the late nineteenth century due to the phylloxera bug, a problem eventually solved by grafting the roots of American vines onto the French vines; these roots are tougher and more resistant to the bug, and every single vine in the vineyard has them instead of its natural variety. He pointed out younger, sprightlier vines as well as some growing alongside that were more than eighty years old.
The vineyards, some 5,000 hectares, stretch out in all directions, all almost identical with their gnarled black stumps and the occasional green glimmer of a leaf. Eric told us that each vine makes approximately 1.5-2 bottles of Chablis; it was slightly mesmerising to look around us and imagine hundreds of bottles of wine standing there instead of the vines. We spent most of our time climbing hills spread with identical expanses of vine, but occasionally passed through some of the forest that stands in patches across the landscape.
Eric pointed out objects that looked like large blackened tins standing at intervals among the vines; he explained to us that when there's danger of a frost during the night, the winegrowers place lit candles in these cans and they radiate heat, thereby preventing the vines from freezing. I could hardly imagine the sheer amount of manpower it would take to light all those candles, considering they were spaced about one every three vines. Apparently it's quicker to use petrol, which is pumped along the vineyards and then ignited at intervals in small burners, as it burns more fiercely so you can spread it out more. We saw some petrol burners too, and huge tanks to contain it at the side of the vineyards - but Eric pointed out that these are kept empty, as otherwise people just steal the petrol.
I asked about the harvesting of the grapes; Eric explained that in an ideal world, it would be done manually rather than by machine, but that this isn't practical for the lower-cost Chablis wines, like Petit Chablis and Chablis. The benefit of this is that the vine isn't shaken vigorously, potentially causing it damage, and that the grapes are picked with their little individual stalks attached. The machines rip these out, leaving a small hole in the grape which causes them to begin to oxidise and affects the quality and flavour. However, it is expensive, requiring huge amounts of manpower, and therefore isn't viable in terms of cost for a wine that will sell for about five euros a bottle. For the Premier and Grand Cru, Eric believes it's important to harvest the grapes manually for the best quality.
I had read when I entered the Chablis blogger challenge that Chablis has a very high export rate; Eric told us that apparently it isn't drunk much at all in France, instead finding favour in foreign markets, particularly the UK, which accounts for around 40% of sales. I asked why this is, and he simply told me that that's how it has always been, ever since merchants in the Middle Ages took wine over to England and it was discovered and enjoyed there by both natives and other traders from places like the Netherlands. Obviously, in the town of Chablis, Chablis is the house wine on all menus and it would seem absurd to drink anything else, but this clearly isn't the case in the rest of France.
The balade gourmande wasn't just about wine, though, as its title suggests. There were five planned stops along the route, and at each the opportunity to sample one course of a five-course lunch and drink an accompanying glass of Chablis.
At our first stop, we sampled an 'aperitif' alongside a glass of Petit Chablis; a young (around 2 years), fresh, easy-drinking wine with floral and citrus notes, often paired with meat or seafood. I was delighted to taste proper French gougères, which I'd attempted to make as part of my Chablis tasting menu, but had no idea what authentic ones would be like. These were seriously delicious - like giant savoury profiteroles, somehow managing to be really crisp on the outside and moltenly gooey with cheese within. There was also a cube of jambon persillé, skewered on a cocktail stick - this is a kind of terrine made with ham, ham jelly, and liberal amounts of parsley to cut through the richness. We also had several slices of sausage - a thicker variety which was quite nice, and a thinner variety, which turned out to be slices of andouillette. But more on my opinions on andouillette later. As Eric pointed out, "jambon persillé...sausage...it's fat. And the acidity of the wine destroys the fat". I couldn't have eaten it without the wine, as it was indeed rather rich and meaty. Except for the gougère, which I could have eaten several times over quite happily.
It couldn't have been a trip to Burgundy without that French classic, escargots, which greeted us at stop number two. I'd only tried these once before, in Paris, and I remember them tasting solely of garlic butter. Which makes me think, if you need to slather something in so much garlic butter to make it palatable, that's probably a hint that underneath it isn't very nice.
These, however, were quite nice. They were served not in their own shells, but in little 'shells' made out of a kind of crispy pastry, so you could pop the whole thing in your mouth. Each little shell had a small snail inside, drowning in a buttery, garlicky bath. The contrast in texture between the crisp exterior and the soft, melting inside was quite pleasant, but I didn't particularly relish the moment of biting into the chewy mollusc within. It's a bit like if you stop too long to think about what you're doing while eating an oyster...if you start to chew on it a bit, or it lingers for a split second too long in your mouth. I think perhaps it's because I kept snails as pets for years as a child, and I still feel a curious fondness for them...or maybe I'm just more squeamish than I like to think. I ate a few, but after about five it was all just too rich, buttery and snail-y for my liking, and I had to leave the rest.
Not horrible, by any means, but not something I'd ever go out of my way to eat. Lord knows why they're making such frequent appearances on Great British Menu at the moment. The snails were accompanied by a glass of Chablis - a dry, delicate wine normally enjoyed young (2-3 years), and the one with the largest production area - which again was a pleasant foil to the extreme butteriness of the whole affair.
There was an interlude as we strolled through forest to get to the next part of the vineyard tour, and I have to say the most exciting part of this for me was witnessing an incredible natural phenomenon - a line, about two or three metres long, of furry caterpillars nose-to-tail, wiggling slowly across the forest floor. I had no idea caterpillars moved in a pack like this; it was a little bit exciting. Eric was less pleased, however, informing us that they do this and then go and attack all the trees and vegetation. He clearly thought I was a bit mad as I stood there squealing with joy and taking numerous photos of this furry phenomenon. I'm sure they were actually just going for a nice Sunday walk, not to pillage the forest.
For the main course of our lunch, we sampled Jambon Chablisienne, which is ham served in a rich sauce of cream, Chablis and tomato. It was delicious, and accompanied by creamy, melting potato dauphinoise. There was also a cooked andouilette sausage to accompany it.
Andouillete is a sausage made from pork (or occasionally veal). But not just pork meat. This sausage incorporates the colon of the pig. As a result, it both smells and tastes of - essentially - pig excrement. I was all ready to like this, honestly. Generally I kind of figure that sausages use dodgy bits of the animal anyway, but normally taste lovely, so what could be the difference?
I should have followed my nose and not even taken a bite. The smell of the sausage cooking was enough to close up my throat in repulsion. I've never smelled anything like it. It was a cross between excrement and rotting flesh, wafting rancidly on the air like some black cloud of doom and pain. Even then, I determined I would try it, in case it tasted better than it smelled.
I took one bite, my teeth closed around the squishy coils of pig intestine, and I immediately grabbed my napkin and spat the whole thing out. It was, without doubt, the vilest thing I have ever put in my mouth. I can't even describe how utterly foul it both tasted and smelled; like nothing that should ever, ever be eaten. The texture didn't do it any favours, either - it wasn't uniform and meaty like a normal sausage, but had thick chunky fatty bits of gut in it. Dear lord, it was horrendous. To give you a further idea, apparently the French parliamentarian Edouard Herriot once said: "Politics is like an andouillette - it should smell a little like shit, but not too much."
The French actually accept that they produce an ingredient that reeks of excrement. There's something wrong with that.
A minute or two later, Eric leaned over and whispered conspiratorially:
"I tell you a secret...I hate andouillette."
I was so, so relieved. I had worried he'd seen me spitting it into my napkin and would be offended at my visceral rejection of his beloved country's regional speciality. But if a native Frenchman hates the thing, you really do wonder why on earth it can be allowed to exist. I saw a few people leave theirs too, but - more shockingly - a lot of them were eaten in their entirety. Not even a glass of Chablis Premier Cru, the accompanying wine, would have salvaged my tastebuds had I attempted to swallow that piece of gut sausage. Thank god there was ham too, not just fatty porcine colon. I am still bristling with horror at the thought of it, sitting here writing this. I might go and wash my mouth out with Chablis just to be on the safe side.
Fortunately, there was cheese to follow. Not just any cheese. A beautiful plate of ripe, warm French cheeses, oozing and unctuous and the perfect thing to spread on a crusty baguette. We had Epoisses, two different goats cheeses, and a Camembert. What really amazed me about this wasn't just the delicious cheese, but how incredibly well it partnered with the glass of Chablis Grand Cru. Not knowing much about food and wine pairing, every now and again I try a dish with a drink that has been recommended for it by someone far more knowledgeable than myself, and I am just blown away. This was one such moment.
The wine not only tempered the richness of the cheese, but the cheese mellowed it and made it taste beautifully honeyed, almost sweet. It was like drinking sweet gold nectar. The Grand Cru vineyards only account for 3% of Chablis's annual wine production, which is why it is the most expensive of all the Chablis wines. It has the best ageing potential, developing a Sauternes-like aroma which I could certainly detect, and intense blossom and dried fruit flavours. We tried examples from three different vineyards (there are seven in total), and there was a marked difference in aroma and intensity between the three.
Having circumnavigated the vineyards, we ended up back where we began for dessert, which was a really beautiful 'Chablis mousse' prepared by the chef of Hostellerie Le Clos, the expensive restaurant we hadn't been able to afford to visit. At least we got to taste his cooking in some capacity. It was a sort of set custard flan, quite wobbly but with a genoise sponge base to give it a little texture. The flavour was beautiful; I couldn't detect any Chablis, but it had a light, sweet fragrance and was only too easy to devour in seconds, especially when paired with a sharp fruit coulis and chewy biscuits. I don't normally go in for creamy, airy sorts of desserts, but this had such a delicate, delicious flavour that I couldn't resist.
This was served with Crémant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine from the region that is rather like poor man's champagne - it is made according to the same method but doesn't come from Champagne so can't be labelled as such - and is really delicious; we tried the rosé version and it went perfectly with the sweet dessert. Apparently it also makes an excellent Kir Royale. Eric pointed out that if you find a bottle of Champagne for ten euros, it is clearly inferior and shouldn't be bothered with, whereas with Crémant de Bourgogne, ten euros will buy you the best. Another strange truth from the world of winemaking. This was the perfect celebratory end to our tiring 12km trek, and to our weekend in Chablis. The sun had shone, I'd somehow burned the back of my neck, I'd pretty much walked off the entire calorie content of my giant lunch, I'd had the opportunity (though I didn't accept, not wanting to embarrass my host by falling catatonic to the ground mid-walk) to drink five big glasses of wine, and I had a bag of white asparagus waiting in my luggage. That's basically perfection, French-style.
I had a fantastic weekend filling in the (shamefully, rather large) gaps in my knowledge both about winemaking and about rustic French villages; seeing the effort and care put into a wine that I'd barely considered before I entered this competition was fascinating and so rewarding. The balade gourmande was a wonderful way to immerse ourselves in the culture of Chablis, both in terms of wine and food, and I'd like to give a special thank you to Eric for being such an interesting and informative guide; those tough twelve kilometres in the battering wind simply flew by thanks to his entertaining commentary. I'd also like to thank the Chablis wine board and Sopexa PR for hosting the Chablis blogger challenge and giving me this wonderful opportunity.
I've just returned from a lovely, albeit too brief, trip to Prague with my boyfriend. I was excited about this for a number of reasons - the five star hotel with spa and epic buffet breakfast, the prospect of relaxation, the fabled beauty of the city - but mostly I was keen to sample the cuisine. My guidebook disparagingly pointed out that "since Czech cuisine largely consists of dumplings and cabbage, it's never likely to win any awards". However, as an avid fan of Moya, Oxford's only (to my knowledge) Eastern European restaurant, I was pretty sure that Czech cuisine had slightly more to offer than the ubiquitous dumplings and cabbage.
Also, I absolutely love dumplings and cabbage. I've mentioned before on this blog that my favourite foods usually involve some type of dough...or in fact, just some type of stodge. This is usually a pejorative term when applied to food, but I don't think it has to be. There's nothing wrong with a bit of stodge. In fact, often, it is exactly what you need. Long and difficult day with not much opportunity to eat anything? Stodge. Hangover? Stodge. Exam-related stress? STODGE IS THE KEY.
Ahem. Anyway. My first impressions of Prague were largely temperature-related, in that it was bloody freezing and I hadn't packed any warm clothes. Clever. My second impressions were largely monetary, in that it was bloody expensive. They say first impressions often turn out to be wrong. This was not the case. Prague was a) cold and b) incredibly expensive. On our last day, we went to a restaurant with a lovely set lunch menu that cost about a fiver for two courses. Too good to be true? Of course. The bill arrived, and we were charged £10 for a bottle of water. I drained my glass, just to check it wasn't, in fact, champagne, which would have explained the hefty price tag. Unfortunately not. The other shock came when I bought some potato gnocchi from a market stall. Street food, in my experience, is normally both cheap and tasty. It was tasty, but it cost me SEVEN POUNDS. For a tiny little box of potato dumplings. I still haven't come to terms with this fact; my boyfriend will testify to the fact that the recollection of it fills me with pure, unadulterated rage. I can understand paying a bit more for meat, or fish - especially as Prague is about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, unless you live in central Africa - but for water and potatoes? Really?
Anyway, I will try and suppress the inner potato demon struggling to break free inside my soul, and talk about one of the joyous things I discovered in Prague. This was brought to my attention on the first day, when we stumbled upon an Easter market in the central square, full of red-topped stalls proffering their wares - a mixture of tacky souvenirs, quaint handcrafted objects, and food. In every direction there was a hunk of pig spit-roasting over a fire, wafting the scent of barbecued meat, and almost every other person we passed seemed to be clutching a large bread roll struggling to contain either an enormous red sausage, or a chicken kebab.
However, interspersed with the aroma of sizzling meat was another scent altogether. This is, essentially, what I imagine heaven smells like. A delicious waft of sugar, cinnamon and baking dough, that drew me to it almost instantly. The stall proclaimed itself "TRDLO". If there's one thing I'd like to accomplish before I die (and reach heaven, perfumed with cinnamon and sugar and baking dough), it is to find out how on earth you pronounce that word. It would seem that vowels are also in short supply in Prague, along with cheap potatoes and reasonably-priced water.
Upon closer inspection, TRDLO (it will remain capitalised, in order to impress its goodness and curious spelling upon all my readers) turned out to be something so simple yet so divine I can't believe I've never seen or thought of it before. A strip of sweet dough is wrapped around long poles, which are then rotated over burning coals until it bakes to form a crispy crust and a soft, brioche-like centre. It's then dipped in either toffee and almonds or cinnamon sugar. If there's one thing - just one thing - I want you to take away from this post, it is the sheer, mind-boggling deliciousness of TRDLO. They remind me a bit of New York pretzels, the big doughy ones, dipped in cinnamon sugar - I remember discovering them on a trip to the city when I was 15. However, the beauty of TRDLO is the way the dough is coiled, enabling you to pull it apart in long, curly strips. The contrast between the crust, sprinkled liberally with crunchy sugar and fragrant cinnamon, and the still doughy centre is a thing of beauty. Truly. (TRDLY).
However, man (or gluttonous woman) cannot subsist off TRDLO alone, and so we gravitated towards the speared pig. We saw locals munching on "Prague prosciutto", which is just a fancy term for large chunks of meat hacked off the rotating porcine thighs and served with a simple piece of caraway-flavoured bread. I was immediately intrigued by the halusky, a huge pan of what initially looked a bit like tartiflette but upon closer inspection turned out to be potato gnocchi mixed with sauerkraut and smoked bacon. Having been up since 3.50am and eaten only a takeaway porridge from Pret a Manger (which was disturbing, in that it made me realise my usual daily serving of porridge is about five times larger than what such outlets consider a 'normal' portion), I gravitated towards the big pan of stodge and meat.
I later tried another version of these gnocchi (the ones I paid SEVEN POUNDS - SEVEN!) for, served with a creamy spinach sauce that looked a bit like pesto. Both were absolutely delicious - more rustic and odd-shaped than Italian gnocchi, but exactly the thing for a very empty stomach. The bacon and sauerkraut version was wonderful - the sharpness of the pickled cabbage and the smoky bacon stopped the whole thing from being too stodgy (though I do have a very high stodge threshold). I ate it greedily with a plastic fork, standing at a little table near the pig barbecue, while Jon tucked into one of those startlingly-red sausages. This was also delicious - quite spicy, and immensely meaty. I then wandered around taking voyeuristic photos of foodstuffs. The guidebook's list of 'must-see' attractions remained unthumbed throughout the entire trip - I was far more interesting in wandering around Prague's eateries. Though we did go to the castle.
That night we had proper restaurant food, at a lovely little place called U Modre, quite close to the square. It was practically deserted, which meant we got a gorgeous little table by the door with a fancy sofa to sit on, and were waited on hand and foot. I was tempted by the "all you can eat" set menu, which featured an enormous array of Czech dishes served in small portions, but eventually realised that I would feel grotesquely sick if I ordered it, because I would eat until I was close to paralysis. I have no willpower in foreign countries when it comes to food.
Instead, I ordered the intriguing "leg of wild boar with rosehip sauce and Carlsbad dumplings". This was incredible. I was half afraid I'd be presented with an entire shank of boar, knowing the Czech predilection for whole pig limbs, but the presentation of the dish was refined and elegant. Several slices of meat, served in a creamy sauce, garnished with a sprig of thyme and with the dumplings on the side. These are different from the normal Czech dumplings (actually more like steamed slices of bread than the kind of dumplings we English would put in a stew) in that they are made from cubes of bread bound together with egg, milk and herbs, so look rather knobbly and charming. They also have slightly crispy bits throughout. The rosehip sauce was delicious, providing enough sweetness to marry beautifully with the rich meat. Jon had crispy duck breast with prunes and potato croquettes, which were little balls of deep-fried mashed potato. Again, the sweetness of the sauce went beautifully with the meat, and the skin was crisped to perfection.
For dessert, we shared an apple and walnut tart, and a "cottage cheese strudel". The latter I assumed was a mistranslation, but when it arrived it did in fact seem to have cottage cheese in the centre. This was no bad thing; along with pieces of apple, it was enveloped in beautifully soft, light pastry. The apple and walnut tart was half cheesecake and half crumble, with gorgeous crunchy pieces of nut and a lovely apple puree to add sweetness. Seriously wonderful desserts. It's nice to eat something with apples in, for a change; I don't tend to use them much in my cooking after December, for some reason. I might have to attempt a cottage cheese strudel sometime soon.
Another wonderful discovery made at the Easter market was bublanina, which translates as 'bubble cake'. I'd been eyeing these glorious little cakes for a while, as they sold them at the TRDLO stall (it took me a couple of days, though, to look past the sugared dough rolls). Intrigued, I bought one, and devoured it within minutes. It is rather like a clafoutis, in that it features fruit suspended in a light batter, but it also has a thin layer of buttery crumble topping. Initially I thought it was just a blueberry cake, but I found plums, raspberries and even a strawberry in there. Which has genuinely changed my life, culinarily speaking, because I have always been under the impression (aided by many cookbooks) that one should never cook a strawberry. Yet when encased in this sumptuous cake-like batter, the strawberry softens to something gorgeously jammy that contrasts wonderfully with the slightly vanilla-scented sponge. I can't wait to try out my own version of this bubble cake - so called, apparently, because the batter bubbles up around the fruit.
The Czechs apparently have a very sweet tooth (or should that be sweet teeth?) which was apparent from the numerous crêpe stalls and ice cream stands around the city. No more so than Italy or France, though. We had some very nice ice cream, including an interesting sesame seed and chocolate combination, but I think the TRDLO and the bubble cake were my favourite sugary delights of the trip. That is possibly because I had just spent a week in Italy, so my ice cream palate was rather jaded.
Another good find was a small market we stumbled across on the last day, with lots of fruit and vegetable stalls. Nothing particularly spectacular, but they had these gorgeous little punnets of berries for sale. They were tiny, and I think meant as a snack more than anything else, as they came with little plastic ice cream spoons tucked into the corners. The Czechs do seem to like their berries; instead of the classic lemon and sugar filling for crêpes, they seem to go for some sort of berry compote, and we found blueberry sorbet in one of the ice cream parlours, which I haven't seen before, even in Italy.
One of my meal highlights was a trip to a restaurant called U Sadlu. It has to be seen to be believed. It's laid out like a kind of faux-Medieval banqueting hall, complete with fake suits of armour everywhere and heraldic crests on the walls. It's lit basically just by candles, and the cutlery is on the table in a large metal flagon. Tables are long wooden affairs with matching long wooden benches. As Jon said, it's the kind of place you'd steer clear of in the UK, but somehow on holiday anything goes. Their menu actually read rather appetisingly, and featured titles such as "Dishes from the Water Realm" for the list of fish options. Given the setting and bizarre olde English language of the menu (sharing plates were described as 'Dishes for the Two Wayfarers'), I was apprehensive about the food, but needn't have been.
I had venison paté with a cranberry compote, served with lovely thick bread, which was truly delicious. I also had 'aubergine with Balkan cheese', which was a plate of wonderfully soft, smoky aubergine slices topped with a very salty, crumbly cheese, and green olives. This was incredible, the salty cheese and olives a perfect match for the rich aubergine. Finally, I tried trout in an almond crust. I was presented with a whole grilled trout, topped with something that looked like scrambled egg but turned out to be - obviously - almonds, in some kind of mixture, possibly involving breadcrumbs. The fish had been stuffed with dill, which gave it a lovely fragrant flavour. Unfortunately, by this point I could only eat half of it as I was so full. Jon had a hilarious goulash, which featured four different types of dumpling, as well as a fried egg and several enormous pieces of crispy bacon. Oh, and the actual goulash itself. It was the kind of thing you'd probably want to eat in the Arctic to sustain yourself when you need 5000 calories a day. The goulash was delicious, though, despite the carbohydrate party going on around it. It was, completely unexpectedly, one of the best meals I ate in Prague.
For our last meal we went to a very posh hotel restaurant - the one that charged £10 for the water - and had an excellent vegetable broth with homemade noodles, followed by stewed pork shoulder with sauerkraut in a creamy pepper sauce. With dumplings, naturally. The dumplings were light and fluffy, the sauce perfectly piquant, and the meat beautifully tender. We also ate little plaited brioche rolls and salted butter. Delicious - shame about the water.
Another excellent dinner was at a restaurant very near our hotel, called Hybernia. It specialised in charcuterie and kebabs (the proper, chunks of meat on a stick kind, not the student kind), which I didn't find out until after I'd eaten there, but luckily I did in fact have a kebab. Jon and I shared a quarter of crispy duck to start, which was served with two types of cabbage (red, and pickled white), and two types of dumpling (bread and potato). It was delicious, everything a good crispy duck should be. I'm used to eating it with Chinese pancakes, hoi sin sauce and cucumber, so it was interesting to try the Eastern European way of doing crispy duck. It seems to be a big thing in Prague; a lot of pubs advertise the following:
If that doesn't make you want to go to the country instantly, what does? After the duck (a completely unnecessary piece of ordering, once we saw what followed), we were presented with our main courses. For Jon, an enormous bucket of glazed chicken wings with tortilla chips and three different sauces. For me, a chicken and vegetable kebab. What was unusual about this kebab, however, was that it was presented vertically. It came in a special holder on a giant plate, and stretched about two feet upwards into the air, heavy with chunks of marinated chicken, huge pieces of fatty bacon, grilled pepper and grilled mushrooms. I'd unthinkingly ordered more grilled vegetables on the side, so this kebab towered over a plate replete with slices of chargrilled veg, and also three little buckets of dipping sauces. It was almost a shame to dismantle it. The vegetables were perfectly caramelised, and the chicken was superb: it had been marinated in yoghurt and spices. Jon's chicken wings were also delicious. I tried to steal a copy of the English menu, because there were some absolutely hilarious mistranslations in it, but in the end I didn't, so you'll just have to imagine them.
Last but not least, I feel I should mention a restaurant called U Male Velryby, or 'The Little Whale', which is near Prague castle and which we visited on our last night. It served Mediterranean, rather than Czech, cuisine, but this was quite nice after the dumpling- and TRDLO-fest of the past few days. The real surprise here was the homemade bread. I was absolutely in awe of this bread. It was thick, dark, studded with walnuts, and had a texture and richness that was more like cake than bread. The waitress seemed delighted when we asked for more, as she said often people don't like it. I could have eaten just that bread for my entire meal. Apparently it's just a soda bread recipe to which the chef adds walnuts. I've made soda bread a few times, and never has it tasted that good. I've been inspired to perfect my recipe now. Other than the incredible bread, I had a seafood pie, which was OK but nothing to write home about (except, ironically, I am blogging about it), and Jon had a steak served with a mushroom-filled pancake, which was absolutely delicious. But the bread was the real highlight for me. As you may have noticed, I like dough.
There were a few things I wanted to try but didn't: pork knuckle, for one, which is quite a big Czech thing apparently...roast rabbit...freshwater fish...goulash - I had a bit of Jon's but didn't have one to myself at any point. Another thing I was eagerly searching for was a fruit-stuffed dumpling served in a butter sauce, like the one they serve at Moya. I am so glad Moya exists, because I can still get my stew and dumpling fix despite being home. And it will probably cost less than in Prague. Overall, though, I think I did pretty well at sampling the spectrum of Czech cuisine. My overall impressions are pretty positive. It will never have the sheer variety and vibrance of Italian cooking, my all-time favourite, but there are a few truly delicious Czech specialities out there, and they definitely know how to do patisserie. A lot of people accuse the food of being on the bland side, but I don't think this is true. Meat is often deliciously spiced, and stews are wonderfully fragrant; yes, the dumplings are quite bland, but so is pasta. The one thing I would say is that the Czechs aren't really into their fresh vegetables; veg tends to come pickled, if at all. But that may just be the restaurant way; after all, no real people eat the kind of food that restaurants serve, every night. There is a huge variety of places to eat out in the city, many of which steer away from Czech cuisine towards French, Italian, and Thai. Prague and the Czech Republic are not exactly devoid of culinary joy...even if you will pay a rather steep price for such joy.
Also, I apologise profusely for the hideous pun in the title. But you can't be cross with me, because I have shared TRDLO with you, and thus made your lives a tiny fraction better.
If New York is where one travels to shop, the Caribbean is where one travels to sunbathe, and South America is where one travels on one’s Gap Yah, then the Middle East is where one travels to eat. Or so I firmly believed when I set off there three weeks ago, and even more firmly believe having returned, undoubtedly fatter and with cravings for flatbread.
I fell in love with Moroccan cuisine when I first inhaled the scent of a lamb tagine. Admittedly it was in England, in the kitchen of the restaurant where I then worked, but it sparked a love affair that did indeed take me to Morocco and to more magical tagines (amongst other delights). Having worked my way through one Moroccan cookbook, I purchased the beautiful Arabesque by Claudia Roden, a guide to the cuisines of not only Morocco but of Turkey and Lebanon too. It’s a wonderful book, with notes on the culture of the three countries and how this affects the way they cook. A lot of the middle eastern food I make derives from Roden’s recipes.
So, having read Roden’s book cover to cover, and followed it up with the Lonely Planet’s section on Middle Eastern food, I set off to Turkey, Syria and Jordan with high hopes (and a large appetite...but that’s nothing new).
First stop, Istanbul. I found uttering the words “Shall we go and get a kebab?” an alien experience, having never succumbed to that student favourite in England: unidentifiable meat carved into an unnatural cone shape, dripping in fat and crammed into a pitta bread with some flaccid lettuce. This is a sorry state of affairs, because the authentic kebab is a beautiful thing, and one undeserving of such a massacre. The main difference between a Turkish and an English kebab is that the Turkish rotating cone of meat has visible layers of meat on it. You can believe that it is real, unprocessed meat that has simply been pressed together into a slab and spit-roasted, unlike the slick, greyish mass that graces kebab vans all over England. This is most obvious for the chicken kebabs, which I actually preferred to their lamb counterparts. In Goreme, Cappadocia, I ate an Iskender kebab, which is marinated chicken served on top of torn pitta bread in a spicy tomato sauce. In Istanbul, a lamb doner kebab in pitta bread with tomato and, oddly, chips. Why they put chips in the bread I am not entirely sure, but the kebab sans chips was very good. Speaking of lamb, I also sampled what the menu translated as “Turkish pizza”: flatbread topped with minced lamb and spices. Not a bad lunch for 2.50 lira, or £1.25.
Istanbul was also our first experience of the Middle East during Ramadan. The two main things I noticed were the increasing irritability and tiredness of taxi drivers and waiters, and the overwhelming sense of being stared at every time you lifted a bottle of water to your lips in the street. Much as I wanted to placate the locals and let nothing pass my lips from dawn until dusk, being unused to the heat, and doing a lot of walking, meant that this was never going to happen. We did, however, find ourselves inadvertently experiencing Ramadan, Muslim-style. Arriving at a kofte restaurant recommended in my guidebook, we were greeted by a large queue out of the door. We were eventually ushered into the bustling restaurant and seated at a table for six with food and drink already laid out on it: bread, salad, water. Puzzled, we eventually realised that everyone else was sitting, staring at their food and waiting for the announcement that they could finally eat it. We decided to wait too, though the waiters said we didn’t have to. We finished the salad, and they brought us steaming bowls of soup (lemon and chickpea, I think), followed by plates of kofte (minced meat and spices) with pickled peppers. The kofte were delicious, and it was great to be sitting eating in a place with so much atmosphere.
Some other excellent Turkish delights included imam bayeldi, a dish of slow-cooked aubergine in olive oil with tomatoes and spices. It translates as “the imam fainted”, and there are various theories as to why, the main one being because the dish was so delicious, although I prefer the theory that he fainted when he discovered just how much olive oil the dish contained (aubergines really are the sponge of the vegetable world when it comes to soaking up oil). In Goreme we ate a local speciality, gozleme, which is flatbread stuffed with various fillings and cooked on a griddle. I had one with minced meat and spices, and another with cheese. Another local speciality there is the testat, or “pottery kebab”. This is a dish of meat cooked inside a sealed terracotta pot, which is broken open for you at the table – quite a spectacle to behold (see left). You have to order it at least three hours in advance to allow for the slow cooking time. We ate two, a meat one and a chicken one, at a lovely little restaurant where we sat on carpets around a low table and ordered half the menu, including a dish of baked okra, more gozleme, and an aubergine stew. I suppose it is the Turkish equivalent of a tagine. Also in Goreme we sampled borek, which is a coil of filo pastry with various fillings, oven baked and served with two sauces: spicy tomato, and yoghurt. I had the nazar, or minced meat, version. Possibly one of my favourite dishes from Turkey.
Of course, no mention of Turkish cuisine is complete without a nod to baklava, the ultimate in sugary goodness. I couldn’t even wait 24 hours to sample some after arriving in Istanbul: we quickly tracked down a baklava shop, and the friendly owner gave us a mixed box to take away. I’ve sampled many different forms of this teeth-crumbling confectionary, including milk and hazelnut, pistachio and chocolate, walnut, and custard, but my favourite remains plain pistachio. There is nothing as delicious as that first bite of syrupy, buttery, crispy, wafer-thin pastry. Although the subsequent bites are pretty good too, as I discovered when I ate five pieces in quick succession. Soon followed the greatest sugar headache of my eating life so far. It was worth it. I returned to that baklava shop three times. I ate variations in Damascus that were nice but not as syrupy (including an interesting triangle-shaped one that was filled with custard and made with vermicelli soaked in syrup round the outside), and in Amman that featured custard as well as nuts, but the Turkish variety remains my favourite.
On to Syria, where prices halve and the amount of food doubles. The way to eat in Syria is mezze, all the way. Although all the restaurants seem to offer an odd mix of French-influenced dishes, my advice would be to order as much mezze as takes your fancy, and enjoy attempting to finish it all (I guarantee you won’t – even with six of us, we struggled). All our Syrian meals began with a big basket of flatbread and several dishes of mezze, and often ended with a complimentary platter of fruit, which we were often far too full for. There was also an occasion where some Syrians celebrating a birthday at the next table shared their enormous chocolate mousse cake with us, and we soon wished we hadn’t eaten so much flatbread. We had mohamara, a dip made of red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses; moutabal, burnt aubergine mixed with yoghurt; baba ganoush, burnt aubergine mixed with olive oil, garlic, peppers and tahini; hummus (which needs no explanation, although hummus beiruti, hummus with meat and pine nuts on top, is a lovely variation); fattoush (salad of vegetables, toasted pitta bread and sumac); tabbouleh (bulgar wheat, parsley, and lots of lemon juice); beef stir-fried with mushrooms and onions; deep-fried mushrooms with garlic dip...
One of my favourite Syrian mezze dishes is kibbeh, which are lemon-shaped patties made of bulgar wheat, minced meat, pine nuts/walnuts and spices, and deep fried. They are crunchy and incredibly moreish. Apparently before the invention of food processors, Syrian women used to pound the meat and wheat together using special pestles and mortars, and you would be able to hear the grinding all through the villages; it was the test of a cook’s skill. I think every meal I ate in Syria featured kibbeh of some description. Later when I found them in Amman, it was like some sort of homecoming.
Another dish I was keen to try was fatta, a breakfast dish consisting of meat and pitta bread layered in a tahini sauce. However, it wasn’t quite what I expected; I imagined a thick layer of meat and break with a dollop of sauce on top. What arrived was a huge bowl containing some chunks of chicken, flakes of bread, and an absolutely enormous amount of tahini, garnished with a thick layer of olive oil and toasted pine nuts (see left). The first few mouthfuls were delicious, but the sheer amount of rich sauce and total fat content was overwhelming, and rendered the dish unfinishable. Not something I could eat for breakfast every day if I didn’t want to be lifted out of bed by a crane – I would indeed be fatter if I ate fatta with any regularity. Luckily we had also ordered saaj, a Syrian sandwich made of flatbread with various fillings: one of my favourites is za’atar, a thyme and sesame seed spice mix which is mixed with olive oil and spread on bread. I also bought an enormous bag of the stuff from a street vendor for 50p, and thought with dismay of the same sized tub I had purchased in Oxford for £3 a few months earlier. Later in Amman I found a za’atar pizza; bread spread with thyme and olive oil doesn’t sound like it could be particularly addictive, but it really is.
One of the joys of Syrian food is its prevalence on every street. As we struggled through Aleppo with our bags, having arrived after an epic journey from Turkey, confused by the Arabic street signs and unable to find our hotel, we passed one of the main food-selling streets. Even amidst all the chaos, I was entranced by the huge piles of fruit and vegetables; more aubergines than I’ve ever seen in my life; a bakery bringing huge trays of freshly-baked bread out onto the street; vendors selling cheese in strange knot shapes, piled up in huge vats; a man forming chickpeas into falafel and deep-frying them; mountains of dates, dark and glistening. In Damascus they eat shwarma, the Syrian equivalent of a doner kebab; marinated meat sliced and piled into flatbread with a garlicky yoghurt sauce. The people in Aleppo are the friendliest I have ever encountered; wherever we went, we were offered handfuls of food. We passed a shop selling Syrian sweets, and were immediately inundated with samples to try, including some delicious marzipan and pistachio sweets, and little slabs of apricot paste – apricots pureed with sugar and set like toffee. I was still finding samples in my bag days later. In Damascus you can find candied fruit for £2.50 a kilo. I recalled my trip to Nice a year ago, where a box of four small candied clementines cost the best part of 10 euros, and purchased a large wooden box of candied oranges, apples, dates, lemons and plums.
In Aleppo I attempted to buy some figs from a street vendor (there they were, piled up high, properly ripe and oozing ambrosial syrup, a sight you will never see in England, where figs arrive underripe, rock hard and woolly-tasting, and are best consigned to the bin), only to be led down the back of the market to the vendor’s friend, who requested to have a photo taken with me on his phone. After obliging two other Syrian men with photos, the vendor piled up a tray with figs, spent a long time selecting a perfect bunch of grapes, and then presented me with the whole thing for free. And oh, those figs tasted good. On the way out of the market we bought some bread; I expected it to be hard and rather bland-tasting from the way it looked, but it turned out to be the most delicious brioche-like creation, with a thick layer of sugar crystals on top. Also divine was the date-stuffed brioche loaf which we succumbed to as well. You simply have to look curiously at any food item in Aleppo to be obligingly presented with a sample: we nibbled bits of falafel, date bread, dates, apricots, pancakes, fresh pistachios, having set out to sightsee rather than eat. Perhaps, being unable to eat themselves because of Ramadan, the locals were enjoying the food vicariously through us. Either that, or they are just genuinely hospitable, generous people who are proud to show off their food. And so they should be.
Food is quite literally everywhere in Syria, a fact that was driven home when I saw a man cycling down Aleppo’s manic roads with a huge carcass strapped to the back of his bike. It was probably a sheep, and had been skinned but otherwise left intact, and there it was just hanging off the back of his bike. Similarly, a walk through the meat section of the market is enough to turn our delicate English stomachs, as you see fish writhing in pits on the ground, waiting to be killed, and whole carcasses hanging up in windows, as well as sheep’s heads piled up high, and various entrails. It really does drive home how sterile our shopping experience is in England, where meat is packaged in plastic with very little to link it to the animal it originated from. Unlike in England, there is a real sense of abundance to food shopping in Syria; everything is piled up high in huge bags or crates, and stall holders will grab handfuls of dates, spices, fruit, vegetables, cheeses, pistachios, and pile them into bags for you. Buying things in small quantities raises eyebrows, as I discovered – clearly everybody was shopping for the breaking of the Ramadan fast, and therefore quantity was a priority.
Breakfast on our first morning in Aleppo opened our eyes to the delightfully named “King of the Vitamin”, one in a long line of Syrian juice bars that I am missing greatly now I have returned home and find a small bottle of smoothie costing about £3. You could smell the fruit hanging up outside these stalls metres away. They will chop, peel and juice, and present you with an enormous tankard of fresh fruit smoothie for the absurd cost of around 50p. My favourite was a pink-coloured mixture of (I think) banana, orange, strawberry and kiwi. They also sell marinated cheese paninis for 25p; the cheese was halloumi-like in texture but tasted like feta. Better than any panini you’ll find in the UK, I guarantee. You can present the vendor with an empty 1.5litre bottle, and have it filled with fresh orange juice, squeezed before your eyes, for £1.50. Found on restaurant menus everywhere is a “lemon and mint” drink, which is basically still lemonade mixed with fresh mint. It sounds odd, but is incredibly delicious and immensely refreshing in Syria’s 35+ degrees C. Also found on the streets is a curious creation that looks and tastes a bit like Ribena, and I believe is made with water, sugar, ice and dried berries. I was sort of forced into accepting one by a street vendor, and was very glad I had done, especially as it contained lots of ice and I was still acclimatising to the massive increase in temperature between Turkey and Syria.
And then to Jordan, which seems to have a lot of food in common with Syria. Here we finally sampled proper falafel, after being unable to find it in Damascus due to street vendors being closed for Ramadan. We sat down at a “restaurant” in Amman that was really more of a fast food stall that spilled out onto the street (cockroaches scuttling over the ground all part of the experience). A man approached carrying a large metal bowl from which he scooped handfuls of falafel onto a napkin in the middle of the plastic table (there was no cutlery in sight). We were then given a huge basket of flatbread and two bowls of dip: one was hummus, the other fuul (an Egyptian mix of fava beans and spices). Later the waiter brought six steaming glasses of mint tea, sweet enough to cause instant tooth decay. The total cost: £1 each. The falafel was delicious: small, crunchy and incredibly addictive. Also good was a meal we had at “Cairo Restaurant”, which was just barbecued chicken served with bread soaked in the spicy cooking juices, and rice. Simple but immensely satisfying after a seven hour border crossing by bus. Another dish I was urged to try by Lonely Planet was mensaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb spit-roasted and basted with spices and served with rice and a yoghurt sauce. We went to a restaurant where the menu was entirely in Arabic, so the easiest option was to just ask for mensaf. It arrived, a big bowl of yellow rice topped with a piece of slow cooked lamb, tender enough to eat with a spoon, and a big bowl of rich yoghurt sauce. No one managed to finish the dish, such was its richness. Delicious, though.
In Aqaba I had to try the sayadiah, a local dish of fish served with spicy rice and caramelised onions, and a tomato sauce. It was enormous and wonderful; the fish had been battered and fried before being placed on top of a mound of fragrant rice. Other good things eaten by the Red Sea included a dish of labneh, creamy cheese spread on a plate and topped with olive oil, crushed garlic and walnuts. I could still taste the garlic several days later, but it was worth it; so delicious mopped up with flatbread. Mufaraka potatoes with egg was a pleasant surprise; it was a sort of mixed up Spanish omelette, cooked diced potatoes fried in spices with beaten egg. The owner of our hotel on our last night presented us with a plate of home-made baklava; it was just as good as the stuff I had in Turkey, possibly even better for being free. It followed a nice dish of grilled fish, which tasted wonderful after a hard day’s snorkelling (and probably observing said fish swimming around the coral reef...)
And now I am home, decanting my za’atar into a jar and flicking through Claudia Roden’s book to find recipes for everything I have eaten over the last two and a half weeks. No doubt tomorrow’s trip to Tesco will be a depressing affair, and I will be dismayed at the paucity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the price of smoothies, the meat in plastic trays and the lack of friendly vendors offering me pieces of falafel or handfuls of pistachios to sample. On the plus side, there are several countries that are no doubt eagerly awaiting me and my stomach. Next stop, Lebanon, methinks.