Thursday, November 25, 2010


Marseille?  Where is that? I've never heard of that place.  For those of you who don't know, it is a small port town on the Mediterranean coast in France.  What drew you to that place? In all honesty, it was Julia Child.  In her book, My Life in France, she describes the food of Marseille in such detail, that it made my list of places to go when I was in Europe (a 20 euro round trip flight doesn't hurt either).  The last few trips I have been on, I have traveled alone.  This time I was accompanied by my new friend Charleen (or Char Char as she is know to her close friends).  I am all up for exploring and going on adventures solo, but I thoroughly enjoyed having someone to eat with, travel with, and most importantly, someone to have interesting conversations with.
Our first order of business after finding our hostel was to find somewhere to eat. We asked the women at the fron desk for recommendations and she suggested Dos Hermanos.  Wary of the name, I ask "this is not a Spanish restaurant right?"  She assures me that the restaurant serves typical French dishes.  We set out to find this elusive Spanish named French food restaurant.  Unfortunately, we went in the wrong direction for 20 minutes and then once we adjusted our course had to walk up hill and up a set of stairs.  Needless to say, it took us about an hour to find the place, the entire time I was thinking "this better be worth it."  Oh the irony, the restaurant was in fact a tapas bar.  I like Spanish food well enough but I am in France, I want some French food dammit.  Luckily, there was one platter of the day that was French.  The benefit to being in a tapas bar is that the staff spoke Spanish which was a blessing as our French were extremely below par.  The meal was thoroughly enjoyable, I mean who can resist a gratin of potatoes, cream, cheese, and lardons with white sangria??  Not me!
For dinner, we enjoyed a savory and a sweet galette (similar to a crepe). The savory galette was filled with Provencal ratatouille and cheese and the sweet galette was with chocolate, bananas, and whipped cream. Our palettes were spoiled that first night. Our "French" was so terrible that by the end of the night I was saying grazie (I don't speak Italian) and Charleen was mumbling words reminiscent of Spanish (no alcohol was involved).

That night a storm erupted like I have never heard, thunder, lighting, the whole bit. We experienced intermediate spurts of varying degrees of rain and even hail at one point for the rest of the trip. However, Charleen and I were not going to let the discomfort of wet shoes stop us from exploring the city. We even braved the beach on Sunday. On Saturday morning, we went to the fish market. I have never seen fresher fish on display and of such variety, a lot of them were still alive in the containers. The fishermen and women cleaned the fish right there and then for you. It was pretty amazing.
To commemorate our adventure to the fish market, we ate Marseille's national dish, bouillabaisse, a rich fish stew served with rouille (a thick sauce made with garlic and saffron) and croutons. This was the reason I came to Marseille, just to try this stew. Is that crazy? Absolutely but definitely essential for my gourmet growth. The broth was a rich fish stock with 4 different kinds of local fish. You could taste the freshness of the fish which I was not expecting. The traditional way to eat the soup is to put the rouille on the crouton and let it soak up all that borthy goodness. Eat a piece of the crouton with a piece of fish and by ready for an explosion of flavor in your mouth. No wonder its so famous, everyone was eating the same thing in the restaurant. That's when you know it's good.
And how can I forget the lovely pastries. On every corner instead of a liquor store you find a patisserie. All I can say is that it was a good thing I was walking so much because I was eating way too many sweets. If Marseille was bad, I can't imagine how Paris will be when I go in January. Every pastry was so beautiful, a small piece of edible art.  Eating for research is the best job in the world.
Whenever I arrive home from my trips, I am always reflective of my experience. This time I felt that I was born in the wrong time period. That maybe I should have been a child of the 50's so that I could have been a key player in the American food revolution of the 70's. Maybe it is my own fault because I have been reading books from the "Greats" in the food industry telling tales of when being a foodie or a gourmand was a budding concept; envying the ease with which connections and lifetime friendships were made. France was still the culinary mecca of the world at this time and we (Americans) had yet to discover the spicy pleasures of Chinese and Thai food or the majesty of hand made pasta. The culinary community was small and interconnected (compared to now). How is it possible that Julia Child and James Beard became the best of friends until the end of their days? That Craig Claiborne and Gael Greene shared so many intimate dinners together? Or how did Ruth Reichl have not one but three coveted positions in the food world, LA times food critic, NY times food critic, and Gourmet editor in chief? I mean, it seems that they have earned their jobs without a hiccup, is it coincidence, hardwork, sheer luck, a combination of all three? I want to read about the hardships, about the difficulties you experienced getting to the top of the food pyramid. It shows you are human and gives me hope that I too will make it, even if the industry is flooded. I can only hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, that I can make an impact and be remembered.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Portugal: The land of my ancestors, bacalhau, and pastéis de Belém

    If you have been reading my posts, you may have noticed that I have been quite the busy bee.  Traveling all over Europe, taking full advantage of being on a continent that is half the size of the U.S. with plane tickets for even less then that (5 Euros!).  This puente took me to Portugal, more specifically to Porto and Lisboa.  I feel that this country is highly underrated, it is just stunning.  I almost didn't want to go back to Madrid.  I must confess though, that being Brasilian with Portuguese ancestors, does play a role.  My great-grandfather was Portuguese with blue eyes (although that's the extent of my family's knowledge of him).  Needless to say, I felt connected by family, history and language.  It felt exhilarating to speak Portuguese, I didn't realize how much I missed it.  I already am making plans to go back!

     My first 2 days were spent in Porto and yes as the name indicates this city is famous for Port wine.  There are several Porto caves that give tours and tastings.  Luckly (didn't have to spend money) and unluckly (didn't get to bring anything back) for me I couldn't buy any of Portugal's amazing wines or liquors.  Portuguese airlines don't understand the need for foodie travelers to bring back these sort of culinary treasures in their small carry on bag.  I learned that 3 types of Ports exist, a white, a tawny, and a ruby.  I enjoyed all of them but I think the white wins.  It is sweet and citrusy, very refreshing as a dessert cocktail.

The food, unfortunately, was less memorable. It was too heavy for my own taste. I had the strangest meal of my life there. It was steak with melted cheese on top, thinly cut french fries on top of that and topped with cooked cabbage. It wasn't that it tasted bad, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. I had to order a salad to counter the greasiness of the fries. My waiter, Ricardo, mislead me with his recommendation.

In Lisboa, the food improved considerably. They really love their pastries and bacalhau (salted cod). Portugal is the highest consumer of bacalhau in the world- that's how you know they really love it.  However, the fish I most enjoyed was whole grilled sardines.  I can't begin to explain the amazingness that happened in my mouth with the first bite.  This was the kind of food I had been waiting to taste.  To me, it symbolized Portugal more than bacalhau because it was fresh from the sea and cooked simply on the grill with olive oil and salt.  It was one of those rare times in my life where tradition and culture ran through the entire dish.  So delicious, so satisfying, I need to eat more.

I of course cannot forget to mention the famous pastéis de Belém.  People just come to Portugal to eat these cream filled pastries.  The line is straight out the door and once inside you have to wait like a vulture to get a table.  All your morals go out the window, basically you don't let the 80 year lady go ahead of you.  In my mind, I thought "well she has had them before, probably for the last 80 years."  These pastries have a thin crust, similar to phyllo but not quite as delicate with a custard filling.  The best part is they come out fresh, piping hot.  Most enjoyable with a cup of coffee.

As with everything, my trip was coming to end but there was one more thing I had to try- The Francesinha. I had been avoiding this dish since the beginning of my trip for reasons none other than it looked like a heart attack on a plate.  But how could I call myself a foodie or a food researcher if I didn't try this iconic Northern Portuguese dish.  I only had one night left and dedicated it to finding the best damn Francesinha which happened to be at Capa Negra.  Basically this sandwich can be classified as a heavyweight grilled cheese.  There was steak, hot dog, ham, mortadella, another meat I couldn't identify and cheese, all topped with gravy.  Now this might seem extravagant but I didn't come close.  Try it with fries and an egg on top.  Eating it was pretty anticlimactic, I don't think it will be something I'll crave in the future or eat again.  Mission complete.

Leaving Portugal was more difficult then I had anticipated. While I was there, I felt connected to my family which later led to a wave of homesickness when I returned to Madrid. Don't get me wrong, I feel EXTREMELY grateful for this opportunity abroad, but there are those days when you just want to be back home with all the people you love and care about. Also, these emotions had to do with the uncertainty of my living situation and feeling like I had lost control of my life. My parents (love those guys) reminded me to "remember where my feet are" and to "keep on doing the footwork" (a lot of feet references). Essentially, enjoy the time I have right now and keep doing things I need to do and don't worry about the rest. This lesson keeps recurring in my life and is a difficult one for me to accept. As always, they were right and everything worked out in its own time.  Portugal taught me to let go.