Getting out of the comfort zone

I’ll never understand those who travel only to spend their time and energy looking for the familiar. I recall when living in Heidelberg, Germany, another American student girl complaining how difficult it was to, and I quote, “find a good burger”. I was 21 and thought to myself “seriously? Is that why you are here?”

I get it, we were young and it was some of our first experiences outside of our comfort zones (age 21, but already on my 5th year away from home, so perhaps this is why I was so annoyed) and perhaps a burger satisfied a kind of home sickness. And we weren’t exactly traveling; we were living there for our studies. I always ate in the student cafeteria, the kind where you shuffled along in line, pushing a metal partitioned tray along the food line while you pointed to the selections you wished the large person behind the counter to ladle into a specific rectangle. I can’t recall what these dishes were, which might be for the best, because I do remember that they were not exactly delicious and I always left feeling heavy. But it was very cheap, I think we even paid with tickets that came from somewhere (the school?), and all the university students in town frequented this place for lunch and sometimes dinner. So perhaps this fellow student had her reasons and maybe I’m being too harsh – but I do remember being annoyed.

So a more appropriate and actually travel related example is: A few months ago, while dining with my BF in a funky French/Spanish/Asian restaurant (it’s called Ménage a Trois in reference to the strange mix of 3 cuisines), next to us was a table full of a visiting Italian family. Mom, dad, older daughter, teenage sons. Perhaps a random aunt. The waiter spoke to them in Italian because they couldn’t manage a word of Spanish. I eavesdropped, bewildered, as the man asked the waiter if the restaurant could make a pasta dish, as there were none on the menu – which you would likely expect in a French/Thai/Spanish fusion restaurant. None of the three are renown for their farfalle or tagliatelle dishes (though the Catalans do have a paella like dish with tiny short noodles instead of rice called Fideuà).

So why, whyyyyy, would you travel however many miles to visit a place only to eat the exact same thing you eat every day of your life at home? I wanted to lean over and say to him, sotto voce: “You’re doing it wrong”.

I’ll give you one more annoying example that, unfortunately, is not uncommon as I am witness to varying degrees of it all the time. But this one particularly stands out. The setting is one of the few American cuisine restaurants here in Barcelona that are not trying to be some kind of 50s diner. A nice place with kind of hipster food and great decor in a trendy part of town. I am actually sitting at the same table as some Irish visitors, who are friends of friends. As they receive their orders of burger and fries, one lass of approximately 35 years of age, calls the waiter over to question what was wrong with the ‘chips’. When the waiter informs her that they are thick cut potato fries, as indicated on the menu, she loudly whines that she wants (and this is a direct quote) “normal chips”.

The confused waiter wanders off after being tongue lashed for a while, and I bear witness to this miserable girl moaning over the appearance and size of her ‘chips’ throughout the entire meal. Is that all you can focus on in this beautiful city at a table full of friends? Your effing ‘chips’ that, by the way, weren’t even on the menu? I can understand if he served you fried chicken feet instead, but these where cut and cooked potatoes that happened to be a different SIZE than you were used too. Girl, please.

Part of traveling is being open to new experiences, especially culinary experiences. If the lass can only consume chips that are identical to those she gets in her chip shop in Hackney, then perhaps she should have told her host she preferred to dine in one of the many, many British pubs in the center of town. Italian Joe maybe should have chosen one of the many, many Italian restaurants all over Barcelona if his pasta levels were running dangerously low. Kudos for getting out of your country to see the world, but try to experience the culinary side of it a little bit too.

 

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Salone del Gusto. Part II.

We had just finished sampling some chocolate in the last post, right? Let’s move onto some of the more unusual stands.

How about some oysters?

Mutant lemons soaked in booze?Waffles.Oh please, more cheese! (Inserted here to demonstrate the overwhelming variety of cheeses showcased at the Salone)Fish fries:This photo is a little blurry, but these cakes are rounds of cheese. The one in front is covered with porcini mushrooms, the small one to the right is covered with salmon, the cakes behind offer grapes and strawberries.Speaking of mushrooms, there were lots.My favorite part of the entire show were conceptual portable food holders.

Behold the “snack holster”:

And do not overlook the utility of the “beer walk”:

I suppose the “beer walk” would be great if you were sporting a full right-angled arm cast. But regardless, how are you supposed to drink your beer without flinging your nuts and chips all over the front of you?

Salone del Gusto. I Went. Part I.

Every two years, the former Fiat factory in Torino becomes a giant salon of food at the Salone del Gusto. This is a Slow Food Foundation event geared toward protecting food biodiversity more than it is a hoity toity meeting of foodies (of which I am decidedly not. I think I burned the majority of my taste buds off through year of eating fiery hot sauce and ultra spicy dishes.)

Anyway, we went because it was something to do on a Sunday, as GP lives 35 minutes away.

The first interesting thing encountered was spiraling ceiling in the Lingotto building. This was used as car storage when it was a factory. (You might also know about the test track – on the roof of the building!)

After resolving to return when we can view the track on the roof, we entered this food fair.

Since this event is in Italy, the majority of the focus is on regional Italian foods (there were International salons as well, mostly European and South American). We sampled plenty of  Italian cheeses, like giant wheels of hard cheese covered with the post wine grape corpses(called “vinaccia”) :

Delicious cheese covered in dead grapes.

And stinky French cheese, made by mountain people in Northern France, aged by burying in the dirt or grass for various lengths of time.

Incidentally, the regional inhabitants looked like mountain people as well.

Other interesting  things cheese is buried in includes grass and animal poop. Animal poop cheese is called “fossa” in Italy. In case you were wondering.

I tried the grass cheese, and given that it tasted reminiscent of tangy grass, I skipped the poo-cheese.

Would you like some grass cheese?

In truth, there was so many cheeses from all over Italy and Europe, that after sampling a Polish cooked cheese, I was cheesed out.And ready for some wine.

We found many samples in the regional salons, though the samples were small.

Me, wondering if the wine pourer will pony up some more wine.

You could purchase another entrance to a wine tasting salon for another 6 Euros, but we passed. A glass for purchase or wine tasting/wine pairing discussions were all over the place.

And wine stewards, tired of standing in their funny uniforms all day, that could be coaxed out of a glass or two for some diverting conversation.

I also came across a cigar/booze pairing discussion. I guess Italian farmed tobacco is protected just like regional cuisine.

Come here to learn what to drink with which stogies.

And beer, including Abba beer (no relation to the band, unfortunately).After booze and cheese, it was time for something a little more substantial, of which there was a lot of at this fair: Meat!

I’m generally not a meat eater and never have been (I remember spitting steak into napkins as a child every time I was served it and flushing sausages down the toilet), but animals for consumption in Europe, especially regional specialties (with the exception of France) have natural diets, are humanely raised and slaughtered, are not treated with any antibiotics, hormones, etc that they taste entirely different and I will occasionally eat meat here. And nothing is better than a sandwich of a couple slabs of simple organic meat and bread!

Tartar that GP drooled over.

After our little snack, we sampled probably 50 different olive oils and breads. GPs favorite oil was from Puglia, which is a region full of ancient olive orchards and oil production. Some breads had branding marks on them, or no salt, or were rubbery or chewy. But all were seriously delicious.Of course, we sampled tomatoes and tomato sauces, the best in my opinion coming from Sicily.

The Sicilians have a very distinctive interpersonal manner. They are engaging and can remain stony faced while being humorous trades people, and therefore very charming to my American sensibilities. These guys were wrangling customers and no doubt were killing it with the Americans who were visiting the Salone del Gusto (I heard a few here and there).And then there was my favorite part.

Endless jams, cookies, biscuits, crackers…And don’t forget …chocolate!

“Woo” chocolate with vanilla from South America was pretty good.

I’m not sure why the racist images of blacks are ever present in Europe and associated with chocolate, but there they still are.

I have more photos to share, so this post is to be continued.

Ah, Barcelona.

Barcelona, I really hate that you insist upon construction work dragging on every day until what most people consider to be nighttime. For example, it is now 8:30pm and there is some ridiculously loud drilling going on in the flat above mine. I suppose the hammering will follow next, as it did last night until after 9pm. Did I mention I work at night, from home?

But I am not going to turn this into a criticism session. Because for all your faults, there are so many things I really love about you.

First, let me tell you how much I appreciate your Greater Middle East area of Raval. You’re hosting some damn fine Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Iranian and Armenian restaurants and bakeries. Fort super cheap, I might add.

I love the unexpected art I come across every day. I found these little gems when I walked out on a jetty to greet a fat puppy sniffing  around at the cats who live in the jetties.

Speaking of the beach, now that Spring is here, the Chiringuitos are all out on the sand, playing music and serving up drinks. Love. Them.

And though I may not be able to find cottage cheese anywhere within your city walls (except for Carrefour Express on La Ramble, but it’s horrible UK cottage cheese), anything resembling real Mexican food, or convenient food like pre-shredded chicken in bags that I am accustomed to preparing for myself like a good American, I do love the entertaining variety of foods I can find in the larger supermarkets.

Yes, those cookies are called “Nun Nipples” and that’s an awfully hoochie looking nun pictured on the box. And you being Catholic no less.

Which brings me to the naked people. God how I love seeing your naked citizens walking around, riding bikes, or otherwise remaining undisturbed in their nudity. I especially love seeing the British tourist and their children stop in their tracks to stare open mouthed, while your Catalunyan grandmothers pass by arm in arm without a break in their conversations.

But the thing I probably appreciate the most is your lack of airport security. I know, I know, I’ve said it before. But that fact that you don’t make me take off my sweatshirt, shoes or earrings and that you don’t blink when I put this in my carry on and pass it through security X-ray:

It just makes my life so much easier.

Oh and also when I misspell my own name on my boarding pass. Thanks for letting that slide, too.

Love,

Me