“And whatever you do,” said the technico who had just installed my gleaming new self-cleaning oven, “don’t use the self-cleaning feature.”
“It raises the oven temperature to 6000 degrees, to convert grease to ash. I had to really jam the stove under your countertop — which is narrower than standard, by the way — so the plug is right up against the oven. You use the self-cleaning feature, you melt the plug. And then…”
He didn’t need to go on. My fantasies of maintaining a spotless oven had just gone up in smoke.
I started to laugh because it was such a supremely Spanish moment. In making an effort to upgrade, I’d moved two steps forward (a slightly roomier and much less temperamental oven) and taken one giant leap toward burning down the entire apartment building.
In its own weird way, it was rather comforting. Seville has changed so much lately, it was good to know the city hadn’t lost its quirky, unpredictable character, its innate ability to infuse even the most ordinary act with mystery and high drama.
I’ll admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of post-trip culture-lag following my five month Mediterranean Food Tour. Returning to a city you love after a long absence is always difficult; the tiny, incremental changes that took place over time hit you all at once. Just when you long to wrap a familiar place around you like a favorite old coat, it feels alien, awkward, and ill-fitting, as if it had shrunk several sizes, grown an extra sleeve, and lost all its buttons.
Speaking of ill-fitting clothes, the city just lost one of its emblematic old shops that had provided generations of Sevillanos with cheap house dresses and men’s shirts. It was called El Mato, and the clothes were so inexpensive it gave rise to the saying, “Tan barato como El Mato,” as cheap as El Mato. This would crop up in exchanges like, “How was your hotel in Morocco?” “Not very nice, but I will say it was as cheap as El Mato.” Rich once bought a short-sleeved collared shirt there, and it was actually fairly decent except that the short sleeves were extremely short, no doubt to save on fabric costs. He wore it for years, and I assured him it didn’t look odd at all. I’m sorry to report that El Mato closed its doors last month and the site is now a bright, modern Mr. Cake bakery.
It’s a bit sad to lose an old-fashioned shop like El Mato (and the dozens of others that have disappeared lately), but the real challenge is adapting to the tourist boom that’s rocking the city. Arriving back in late September, I found crowds jamming the downtown streets like something out of a dystopian movie (the teaming hoards in Soylent Green and the zombie stampede in World War Z come to mind). From 2014 to 2018 (the year Lonely Planet declared Seville the world’s top destination) tourism rose almost 35%, and when the 2019 statistics come out, I’m guessing it will prove to be another record-breaking year. I’ve heard 32 hotels are being built in the city, and new restaurants seem to pop up every day. Some are wonderful, but all too many are cookie-cutter corporate chains offering burgers, pizza, and chicken Caesar salads. Bars now sell drinks with umbrellas and pineapple in them, to underscore the theme: you are on vacation does it really matter where?
“It’s all your fault,” a friend told me. “If you’d just stop saying nice things about the city on your blog, we might have a chance of stemming the tide.”
I don’t actually believe that I’m the prime mover here, but I felt I should meet him halfway. “How about I start a rumor that the Great Plague is back?”
In the middle of the seventeenth century, this grisly disease claimed the lives of a quarter of the population the city, when the national average was 5%. Why? Because the Sevillanos of the day — those old scofflaws — ignored, evaded, and refused to enforce the efforts to maintain quarantine.
“The Great Plague?” he said. “Yes, that should do nicely.”
I promised to mention it on my blog at the earliest opportunity, and now I have. Feel free to help me spread the rumor far and wide.
But for the most part, I’m trying to adapt to the new reality, not fight it. As Rich keeps pointing out, all cities change constantly; it’s what keeps them vital and alive. I’ve occasionally visited towns — Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, or Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic — where they’ve worked so hard to preserve the town as it was during a single moment in its history that the place has become a theme park, a plasticized, Disneyland version of itself.
I strongly doubt that will be Seville’s fate. This city is too quirky and unruly ever to line up behind any single idea, even one with such obvious benefits as fighting the Great Plague. Twenty years ago, I was gobsmacked to discover that the many city maps of Seville were all drawn differently — some, for instance, enlarged alleys that were useful shortcuts, while others fudged the angles of streets to suggest they all converged on an important landmark. I finally realized each cartographer was being helpful, drawing attention to navigational elements that might be overlooked on a more accurate rendering.
That attitude certainly hasn’t changed. Does a self-cleaning oven really heat up to 6000 degrees? Of course not. The maximum is 471 Celsius (880 Fharenheit). Our technico was merely exercising his God-given right to convey information with sufficient drama to ensure we’d be too terrified ever to consider using the self-cleaning feature. He wasn’t just installing an oven, he was saving our lives. And he was serving as a timely reminder that in the midst of constant upheaval, Seville’s kind heart and quirky spirit remain as strong as ever.
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“And this is the Virgin of the Napkin.” My Spanish friends beamed fondly at the painting, hung in its own exquisitely lit niche in Seville’s Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum). Sometimes both talking at once, each one jumping in with colorful details, my friends explained that the famous seventeenth century artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo had painted this incredible work on the back of a napkin one night after dinner. He'd been dining with some monks here in the city, and afterwards they’d asked him to paint a little something for them as a memento of the evening. Murillo, who apparently had brought along his painting gear, picked up a napkin (presumably not the one he’d been wiping his lips with during dinner), stretched it like a canvas, and began this work.
“Increíble!” I exclaimed, as I was clearly meant to do. “Casi un milagro.” Incredible. Practically a miracle. My friends glowed with pride and pleasure.
That was fifteen years ago. And while I naturally had my doubts about this story — for a start, even a painter as gifted as Murillo couldn’t dash off a work that detailed in a single evening — it was still a shock to arrive at the museum ten days ago and discover that the painting had been thoroughly debunked. Yes, the work was indeed painted by Murillo, but the legend involving napkins and monks originated in the nineteenth century and soon went viral thanks to British travel writer Isabel Romer, who loved digging up colorful, offbeat stories for her readers. (A woman after my own heart.) The painting has been moved to a lesser position next to some of Murillo’s larger works; clearly it’s now a mere footnote in the great man’s story.
Having a cherished legend debunked is one thing; it’s considerably more disconcerting to discover wild inaccuracies in our very concept of what our planet looks like. Remember the world map that hung on the wall in your grammar school classroom? It’s all wrong.
That image of world geography got its start in 1579, when Gerardus Mercator cleverly represented the world as a grid that navigators could follow using straight compass lines, eliminating the need for constant, tricky course corrections. Fast forward nearly 400 years to when my husband was in the navy, and the Mercator projection was still the gold standard, used on his ship to navigate the route between Norfolk, Virginia and Gibraltar. The Mercador projection may be great for sailors, but it has the unfortunate side effect of distorting the size of land masses, enlarging those further from the equator until Greenland (836,330 square miles) looks bigger than South America (6,890,000 square miles) or even Africa (11,730,000 square miles).
Today there’s growing support for the Gall-Peters projection, which attempts to correct the geographic distortion of Mercator’s approach. Naturally, this new work is surrounded by its own controversies, with some cartographers sneering at James Gall (a 19th century clergyman) and Arno Peters (a 20th century German filmmaker) as unqualified hacks. The Controversy section on the Wikipedia page reads like a Facebook rant. Nevertheless, the Gall-Peters projection is gaining traction; it’s now being promoted by UNESCO and has been adopted by a growing number of British and American schools, where it’s viewed as a more accurate and equitable representation of the planet’s geography.
Ours is a world full of controversy and dissension, and just about the only thing we can all agree on is that we live in an age of disinformation. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves that there’s nothing new about distorting information and disseminating it far and wide. Just this morning at breakfast Rich was talking about the party line telephones of his childhood. For younger readers, this was back in the dark ages before everyone had their own phone, and houses in a neighborhood would often save money by sharing a single land line. When the phone rang, everyone would run pick up, and when it was for you, the neighbors were supposed to hang up — but of course they secretly stayed on the line, listened in, and then proceeded to share all your news and gossip with everyone within their orbit. Rich calls it “the forerunner of Facebook.”
With disinformation ramping up online, I find it comforting to spend time in countries that haven’t (yet) been overwhelmed with bot-fueled globalized thought manipulation. One night in May, I was on the Greek island of Ikaria, famous for the remarkable health and longevity of its residents. An election was coming up, and a meeting had been called in the village of Evdilos; chairs were set out under the trees near the wharf, and what appeared to be the entire population of the village gathered at twilight to sit and listen to the candidates. Here, politics was still a face-to-face business that didn’t rely on sound bites and social media. In its own small way, it was breathtaking.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of globalization and mass disinformation. But standing at the back of that crowd on Ikaria, I was reminded that we still live in human communities. It is our nature to talk among ourselves, sharing information, weighing facts, exploring ideas, arguing, attempting to winkle out the truth of a subject. We do it with friends and family at home and, if we’re lucky, with those we meet during our journeys.
“The antidote to misinformation is exchange: to send truth-tellers around the world," said former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Bleich. “Truth-tellers—mathematicians, scientists, musicians—return from places and can tell people objectively what they saw and experienced and learned, and restore critical and analytical minds.”
Being a truth-teller is important work, and every traveler can do it. When we have the good fortune to spend time talking with people of other cultures, we bring home fresh perspective not only on their culture but our own.
“Travel,” says globetrotting author Rick Steves, “challenges truths we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given.” And that’s a wonderful thing. Because it shows we don’t have to live in a “post-truth” world, as some in the media would have us believe. Yes, there are plenty of people around who are careless, callous, and conniving with the truth. But there are still millions of us who persist in caring about the nature of reality, verifiable facts, and the precise shape of our world. And that’s truth worth knowing.
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As a blogger, I occasionally keep tabs on my posts by glancing at the metrics provided by Google and my website builder. But for a really accurate reading, I’ve learned it pays to tally my spam.
Like most people, I started small. Five years ago, the odd post would receive a random comment such as: “Your post is very insightful. To make your day even better, buy Viagra here!” Then a couple of years ago, my spammers became fixated on one particular post: Yoga for Travelers, published on May 12, 2016. First it was a comment or two every month, then every week, and recently it’s soared to several a day, sharing offers for medical marijuana and heavy industrial equipment (preferably not to be used at the same time). I’m getting exhausted just tapping the “Spam - Delete” button.
I will say the comments are getting livelier. Last week I got this from Kajal Das in Bollywood: “Flames Web Series is an oh so sweet story that manages to reach that quiet place lurking within our hearts, even in the cacophony of today’s times. It’s that all encompassing feeling that sweeps us off our feet as we watch the story unfold on screen. And as Rajat and Ishita slowly get drawn towards each other, we find ourselves drawn into the story, until we’re totally into it, hook, line and sinker ! We start rooting for this syrupy love story, wishing with all our hearts for the misunderstandings between Rajat and Ishita to clear up, and for them to get back together.”
Will Rajat and Ishita finally clear up their misunderstandings and find true love? If so, they’re going to have to do it without the assistance of my original Yoga for Travelers. I’ll soon be removing that particular post altogether, in hopes of freeing up my schedule from the boring chore of endless spam deletion. Besides, I have plenty of new thoughts to share on the subject.
I’ve been doing yoga a long time — off and on since I was a senior in high school; that's when I signed up for an optional yoga class because I thought it would be hipper than doing actual athletics during the period assigned to PE (physical exercise). Since then, I’ve come to appreciate other benefits besides the coolness factor. The older I get, the more I rely on yoga to keep me strong and flexible and, when I’m on the road, to offset the effects of long bus rides, hard mattresses, and suitcases that require constant hoisting and hauling. Travel may keep our synapses young, but it can take a toll on our bodies, and Rich and I decided from the outset that during our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour we would work to minimize our aches and pains by spending regular time on the mat.
And when I say “on the mat” I am, of course, speaking metaphorically. One of the challenges of doing yoga on the road is that I don’t carry a mat with me. Yes, I know there are folding mats available, but as a minimalist packer, I don’t have even that modest amount of space and weight to spare. Instead, when I’m on the road, my yoga practice takes place on whatever rugs and/or towels I can find in our lodgings, and when confronted with an impossibly hard or grubby floor, I stick with standing postures and avoid floor work altogether.
When I'm away from my regular classes, I practice with yoga videos. Maybe it’s a total lack of willpower on my part, but I find it’s a lot easier to keep going when someone is telling me what to do, how to do it, and why it’s helping. There are, at last count, some 549 million yoga videos online; as you can imagine, quality varies wildly. Yoga with Adriene is one of my favorites; she’s got an engaging personality, a dog that wanders on screen from time to time, and more than 500 videos ranging from a few minutes to an hour. On my recent trip, when confronted with dubious floors I often used her Hands-Free Yoga Workout for standing stretches. But that’s just 15 minutes long, and I usually prefer half an hour, so I also practiced with Maris Aylward’s 30 Minute Wrist Free Hands Free Yoga Flow. To mix things up, I selected other teachers’ videos more or less at random.
Of course, yoga isn’t the only way to keep fit on the road. Rich calculates that we walked 735 miles on the trip, and personally, I think we should get extra points for all the crazy staircases we climbed, especially when dragging our bags up with us.
Thanks to the walking, the stairs, and our yoga pracitce, we managed to eat our way through ten countries without gaining any weight at all.
Swimming wasn't part of the program on this trip, but Rich likes to research public pools around the world via SwimmersGuide.com so he can keep up with his laps when circumstances permit. For those who like to work out with weights and machines, there’s been some buzz lately about the free smartphone app Zeamo that helps you find gyms anywhere; I haven't tried it, so if you do, let me know how well it works. Unfortunately the yoga world hasn’t yet organized itself properly with worldwide apps or websites, so your best bet is still good old Google. According to the International Yoga Federation, there are 300 million people worldwide practicing yoga, so there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be able to find a studio just about anywhere you go.
Apparently the abundance of yoga practitioners creates an irresistible target for the world’s spammers. And no doubt before long they will notice this post and begin sending me comments about miracle weight loss pills and cheap hair transplants. But there may be some redeeming moments, too. Now that Bollywood has come out with season two of Flames, we can all look forward to finding out if Rajat and Ishita have finally managed to patch up their differences, realize they’re in love, and locate a really great yoga class in a studio near them. Stay tuned for updates.
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“So I need to come up with a topic for this week’s post,” I said to Rich, as I pushed open the door to a cerveceria (beer house) on the outskirts of Seville. The usual Sunday lunch crowd was gathering: parents with adult kids and grandchildren, long-married couples, a cluster of single men in the corner by the TV, watching the game.
The chef’s wife shouted a welcome over the hubbub, and we called back greetings as we threaded our way to one of the plain wooden tables at the back. The waiter hurried over with a white paper tablecloth, and Rich picked up the napkin dispenser while I lifted the menus. After putting the table in order, our waiter leaned forward confidentially, flipped open one of menus, and pointed to the words pollo al campo.
“The country chicken is really good today,” he said, as he always did. “From our place in the country. Delicious. Also the wild boar.”
When the waiter left to fetch our drinks, Rich and I considered our options and agreed, as we usually did, that the pollo al campo really was too delicious to pass up. I began again, “So about this week’s post…” A great shout went up from the futbol corner as someone — judging by the joy, someone on the home team — scored a goal. Behind us, a chair fell over with a crash, and a small boy hurried past, trying to look innocent. Our waiter returned with ice cold beers, a bowl of olives, and a basket of bread. I gave up any attempt at conversation and just sat back to enjoy the atmosphere that locals call Sevilla profunda (profound Seville).
There is something wonderful about a solidly unpretentious eatery, with serviceable furniture, regular customers, and nothing that even pretends to be “décor.” In a place like this, you can relax knowing you’ll find the same hearty, delicious dishes that have been satisfying locals for generations. You need never worry that the chef will suddenly become inspired to force-feed his neighbors the kind of small-portioned, trendy fare that comes from studying molecular gastronomy in Paris.
Don’t get me wrong; I love and respect Parisian cuisine. And it continues to set an ever-higher bar for world gastronomy, offering breathtakingly original versions of beef curry udon, deconstructed paella, and amusingly reimagined Mexican enchiladas. But visiting the City of Lights last month, I kept feeling something was missing. Finally one night, while sipping excellent sangria in a trendy boîte with a carefully cultivated dive bar theme, I figured it out.
“Every meal has been great,” I said to Rich. “But where’s all the French food?”
The answer is: disappearing fast. Having watched this phenomena take place in Seville, I shouldn’t have been surprised to encounter it in Paris as well. It’s called culinary displacement, and it’s what happens when trendy new eateries burst on the scene, followed by thinly disguised corporate chains with low-priced pizza and hamburgers; the glut of options leaves traditional restaurants marginalized if not outright defunct. Lucky for me, Sevillanos have a long history of stubbornly clinging to their traditions, so there will always be classic neighborhood cervezerias around, although they’re getting harder to find in the tourist-filled city center. In Paris, according to food writer Alexander Lobrano, the situation is more dire. “Today, rather than being the ballast of the Paris restaurant landscape, ‘real’ bistros are now marketed as nostalgic curiosities where you often pay a steep price for the privilege of eating ‘real’ French food.” Mon Dieu, say it ain’t so!
The disappearance of bistros is appalling news for travelers — not only because we’re losing the opportunity to enjoy coq au vin and bœuf bourguignon in their native habitat, but because we'll have fewer opportunities to connect with what it means to be French. Part of the fun of visiting foreign lands is immersing yourself in the atmosphere, enjoying the spectacle of everyday life playing out in a way that’s profoundly characteristic of that particular place. It offers us illuminating glimpses of their culture and often teaches us something about our own.
That’s not going to be happening so often in Paris these days, but I can assure you that large swaths of Europe remain untouched by culinary displacement. In Dijon, for instance, restaurant hours are as inflexible as Old Testament commandments. Stay open past 1:30 for lunch? Are you mad? The fact that hungry tourists are standing at the door waving fistfuls of euros doesn’t make anyone budge by so much as a nanosecond. Is this attitude annoying? Intensely. But it’s also very, very French.
Americans and les Français have long lived in a state of mutual incomprehension. “In Paris,” said Mark Twain, “they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Is Paris a better place now, when we’ve convinced it to bow to economic necessity and offer us food we recognize, menus in English, and opening hours that suit our schedule?
Spain is under considerable pressure to adapt to standard hours set by the European Union, and many northern cities have dispensed with the long mid-day break that allows time for lunch at home followed by a siesta, with work lasting later in the evening to compensate. Seville is stubbornly refusing to change, at least for now. Most businesses and shops still close for three hours at lunchtime and all day on Sunday, giving families and friends time to gather at home or meet up in neighborhood places like our favorite cerveceria.
When our pollo al campo emerged from the oven, the chef himself carried it to our table and carved the bird for us. It was a true country chicken, sturdy rather than artificially plump, the dark meat a deep brown color, the skin glistening and crisp. It was served in an old-fashioned black pan, atop a mound of fried potatoes, the whole thing swimming in a sauce of chicken fat, wine, and salt. No doubt it was served in precisely the same way in the chef’s grandmother’s time. Rich raised his glass. “To Sevilla profunda,” he said.
“About that topic for this week’s post,” I said. “I think I have an idea.”
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Of all the phrases you don’t want to utter, “Wait, stop, I didn’t get my passport back!” is fairly high on the list. Not quite up there with “OK, I’ll throw myself on the grenade” but well above “The next round’s on me.” The realization that this essential travel document has disappeared is especially unwelcome when you’re jammed in a sweltering bus in the no-man’s-land between the border-control stations of Albania and Montenegro, and you’re fairly sure the guy who collected the passports doesn’t speak English.
Selfishly, I could rejoice in the fact that the missing passport wasn’t mine or Rich’s, but I couldn’t help worrying for the young Dutch student who’d lost it. We’d been chatting with him and his girlfriend since our departure from Shkodër, Albania, swapping travel tales, learning about their studies in Amsterdam, explaining we were currently halfway through our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. As on other border crossings in the Balkans, the bus attendant collected all the passports and disappeared into the guard station while we waited on the bus. He eventually reappeared, handing the stack to the nearest passenger, who was supposed extract their own and pass the others along. As the Dutch couple, Rich, and I were sitting in the very back row, I was only too aware this provided ample opportunity for anyone on the bus to thumb through our personal travel information and/or pocket one of our passports.
When the last of the passports had been claimed and our seatmate’s wasn’t anywhere to be found, he alerted the bus attendant in a voice that was surprising free from hysteria and calmly ambled forward to sort out the problem. His insouciance became all the more remarkable when I learned later, after the passport had been found in the Albanian border station, that this would have been the third time he’d lost one. He told us that according to Dutch law, three lost passports means you won’t be issued another for five years — a life-changing possibility that he just shrugged off with a grin. “Didn’t happen. Why should I worry?”
“This is what I love about traveling with young people,” Rich said as we waved goodbye to the Dutch couple in Podgorica. “They’re so adaptable.” Over dinner that night he returned to the subject. “You know, when you get older, you don’t always think as fast, so it’s natural to try and make your life as predictable as possible. You want to control everything around you. And you can’t. In fact, you can’t really control much of anything. The Buddhists know that, and so do most young people. Somehow we forget that truth as we age.”
The subject of age came up a lot during the five months of our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. Six weeks into the trip Rich turned 75, and my 68th birthday came around the day after we returned home to Seville. We’ve finally accepted the fact we’re no longer spring or even summer chickens; we’re winter chickens. It’s a sobering thought, and one that seems easier to accept gracefully when we’re on the road.
Life has a beautiful simplicity when you’re traveling. The fuss and clamor of everyday activities subsides. You don’t have to worry about going to meetings or fixing that leak in the roof or getting your cholesterol checked. The concerns and projects that propel our days go into hibernation for the duration. “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me,” wrote Jack Kerouak, “as is ever so on the road.”
Of course, journeys bring their own challenges, including the kind of mind-stretching problem-solving exercises that keep our synapses firing. Forget Sudoku and Lumosity. Try figuring out the controls of a Greek washing machine, that streamlined Italian shower, or the Turkish coffee maker. Wrap your brain around the Cyrillic азбука (alphabet) or grapple with the fact your bus to Montenegro is marked Mali i Zi, the Albanian name for that country. Even the relatively simple task of fitting your life into a new Airbnb apartment gives your brain a brisk workout.
Every time your brain does these kinds of mental push-ups, it strengthens some of its synapses, those 100 trillion minuscule gaps across which chemical messengers travel, enabling the brain to function. “In the last twenty years,” wrote John B. Arden in Rewire Your Brain, “there has been an overwhelming amount of evidence that the synapses are not hardwired but are changing all the time.” This characteristic, known as neuroplasticity, means that “the brain changes its synapses when you remember something new.” That’s right, you’re boosting your brain power every time you recall how to get from your hotel to that great little bar around the corner and then root around in your memory for clues about whether the local word for beer is birrë, cerveza, or pivo.
We don’t have to go out of our way to find mental challenges on the road. Even if the Albanian customs officials don’t manage to misplace our passports, there are endless small hitches, glitches, and hiccoughs to contend with and a constant stream of new information to absorb. The good news is that every time you do remember route details, historical tidbits, or where you left the car keys in the new Airbnb, you can congratulate yourself on making your brain a little stronger and more youthful.
My brain will never again be as flexible as those of the twentysomethings from Amsterdam we met on that bus, but my memory … wait, what was I saying? Just kidding. My memory is at its best when I travel, when I think and write about my journeys, and as I plan future trips. I can only assume that’s because I’m doing something right by my 100 trillion synapses. I am counting on them to do right by me in return.
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As you can imagine, returning home to Seville after five months on the road we’ve been bombarded with questions, including “Are you nuts?” and “Are you two going to stay put for a while?” (The answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”) But the two that always come up first are these:
After five months of gorging ourselves on the best comfort food Europe has to offer, the answer is — drumroll, please — we didn’t gain an ounce. Rich actually lost two pounds. As for me, I can’t provide hard numbers, because after a lifetime of slavishly tracking each tiny gain and loss, some years ago I decided to stop weighing myself altogether. My metric is whether I can button my skinniest jeans, and the answer to that is a definite yes.
Why didn’t all that good eating add to our avoirdupois? For one thing, we only ate heartily when we were on the trail of local comfort food; in between, we had salads, fish, and other light fare. We did twenty to thirty minutes of yoga most days. But mainly, we walked a lot. Rich calculates it was somewhere around 735 miles — the equivalent of strolling from New York to Nashville, or (for my European readers) doing the entire Camino de Santiago pilgrimage one and a half times.
How did our shoes hold up? Sadly, only one of the two pairs I brought survived the trip. Somewhere in northern Greece, I started noticing feelings of mild dizziness; by the time I got to Albania, these spells were getting more frequent, annoying, and disquieting. Finally I realized the culprit was my comfy old sneakers. The soles were worn so slick they didn’t maintain proper traction on city sidewalks, and I was slipping and sliding a tiny bit with every step. Apparently this upset the equilibrium of my inner ear just enough to create a recurring sensation of dizziness. No, I don’t have a medical professional’s diagnosis to corroborate this. But I can tell you that as soon as I bought a new pair of sneakers the problem cleared up. That’s proof enough for me.
My old sneakers weren’t the only things we jettisoned along the way. Rich had a new t-shirt that rubbed irritatingly against his neck, and as the hottest summer in Europe’s history wore on, I parted with two long-sleeved t-shirts to make room for one sundress and then another. As minimalist packers, we follow the rule that buying anything means removing an item of equal bulk and weight from the suitcase. We never throw clothes away; instead, we leave them somewhere they’ll be found — usually sitting on top of a dustbin or bagged and hanging on the back of a restroom door in a train station or dive bar. I like to think these once-beloved possessions are now leading exciting lives with their new humans.
My most dramatic discard involved a wardrobe malfunction in Kosovo. As regular readers will recall, Rich and I took a luggage-free side trip to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. I threw a nightgown and a few necessities into my purse, dressed in comfortable trousers and a fast-drying gauze blouse, and off we went on the overnight journey. We had a fabulous time, sampling mouthwatering Albanian tavë kosi, baked lamb in yogurt sauce, and watching people in tiny storefronts plying such old-school trades as sewing suits, resoling shoes, and repairing vacuum cleaners. That night I hand-washed my blouse and undergarments, and when I dressed the next morning, the bright light streaming in the hotel window made the gauze blouse look nearly translucent. When I remarked on this, Rich said, with true husbandly sympathy, “Nonsense. It’s fine.”
Half an hour later, as we strolled the city sidewalks in search coffee, he turned to me and said, “Karen, it’s not fine. In fact, I can see right through your blouse. And so can everyone else.” Yikes! Apparently the repeated washings had proved too much for the delicate gauze, which was disintegrating before my eyes and the eyes of interested passersby.
I dashed into the nearest store, where I began a nightmare shopping effort. Having seen hundreds, possibly thousands of attractive shirts in shop windows all through Greece and North Macedonia, those now confronting me were, without exception, hideously unacceptable. I’d have settled for an “I (heart) Kosovo” t-shirt had I found one, but I drew the line at a bare-midriff tank top sporting the “Hello, Kitty” logo. After visiting three or four equally discouraging shops, I finally purchased the ugliest turquoise t-shirt ever manufactured. But as Rich pointed out, at least I no longer risked creating an international incident by getting myself arrested for indecent exposure. As soon as we got back to North Macedonia and I was reunited with my other clothes, the gauze blouse and turquoise t-shirt were given their freedom.
Among the other casualties of the trip were my bedroom slippers, which gradually stretched to the point that during the final weeks I was having difficulty keeping them on my feet. Note to self: Comfortably worn footwear might serve well for a few weeks, even a month or two on the road, but it simply can’t stand up to the demands of long-term use. Newer footwear, broken in to the point of comfort but still in its prime, is what I’ll shoot for in the future.
Which brings me to the question about when we’re going to burn our trip clothes.
The answer is: we’re not.
In the past, we had “trip clothes” and “regular clothes,” but these days nearly everything we own is travel wear. With the exception of the stretched slippers, now earmarked for a charity shop, all the robust garments we carried home in our suitcases have resumed their rightful place in our everyday collection.
Just last night, I went out to dinner in the sundress I bought one sweltering afternoon in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bright flowers on the sturdy fabric will always remind me of that city’s extraordinary beauty and the resilience that sustained its people through desperately tough times. No, I won’t be burning that dress. Nor will I destroy any of the other clothes that served me faithfully during our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. They are reminders of grand adventures and have earned a place in my wardrobe. Unless of course, any of them become embarrassingly translucent, and then they’re history.
Do you have wardrobe malfunction stories, tips for reliable travel shoes or clothing, or other packing suggestions to share? Please pass them along in the comments below.
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Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
161 Days on the Road
Distance traveled: 5,234 miles / 8,423 kilometers
Countries visited: 10
Great meals: countless
Weight gained: none
Our current location: Home in Seville, Spain
Thanks for joining us on the journey.
“I like my gingerbread covered with pâté de foie gras, accompanied by a nice white wine.” As Philippe sighed with pleasure at the memory, I thought: “I will never get this town.”
Dijon was the 36th city we’d stayed in during the last five months. Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour has taken us through Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, and now France. It’s been tremendous fun, but there have been challenges, too. I’ve had to learn to read bus schedules in the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. We’ve stayed in so many places with hazardous stairs that it’s a wonder all our limbs are still intact. And while generally the food has ranged from good to fabulous, we’ve eaten a few dishes that we didn’t find easy, most especially the traditional raw horse meat served during race week in Asti, Italy.
None of that put me off my stride. But I have finally met my match in Dijon.
Everyone assured us we’d love the food here, and Rich and I were eager to find a congenial spot to sample such local specialties as boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and escargots de Bourgogne. On Day One, we set off at 12:30 in search of these culinary marvels, but every eatery we passed was either utterly lacking in charm or bore a hand-written sign informing us they were closed for vacation. After wandering around for more than an hour, we finally stumbled into a place that looked promising, but the staff reacted with stares of incomprehension, gallic shrugs, and shooing motions encouraging us to leave at once. This little scene was replicated in three other restaurants, leaving us as bewildered as we were famished.
It turns out that on weekdays in Dijon le déjeuner (lunch) is invariably served from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm. Period. Who knew?
If it wasn’t for a large supermarket in a downtown department store and a really excellent all-hours kabob house around the corner, we would have starved to death.
When we weren’t out grubbing around for food, we tried to take in the sights, but a remarkable amount of our time in Dijon was spent staring at locked doors and signs reading fermé (closed). Take Saturday, for instance. Philippe, our guide on a very entertaining food tour, told us how lucky we were to be there during European Heritage Days to enjoy free admission to all the museums, palaces, and historic monuments — plus there was a second-hand market. What fun! However, by the time the tour was over and we’d stopped back at the apartment for a short rest, we returned to the city center only discover the market dismantled and every one of the museums, palaces, and monuments closed and locked.
Despite such setbacks, we’ve managed to visit quite a few of the city’s most famous landmarks and enjoyed the city itself, especially the half-timbered houses, churches, and magnificent palaces built while the Dukes of Burgundy reigned there from the 9th century until 1477.
On the food tour, Philippe introduced us to the city’s iconic mustard, its famous gingerbread, and the tradition of the 11:00 am aperitif, an alcoholic version of elevenses that included gougères (cheese puffs) and kir, a popular French cocktail of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and white wine. At the colorful 19th century Les Halles Market, he showed us mouthwatering produce, cheese, meat, and poultry, including the famous blue-legged Bresse chickens sold with their heads still attached, a sign of quality intended to make it easier for you to fork over 28€ ($30) a kilo for what's said to be the most pricey chicken in Europe.
“Yes they are expensive. But if you eat this, you really taste chicken,” Philippe assured us.
The market’s central café, La Buvette, was jammed, yet Philippe somehow contrived to find us seats and produce platters of Beaufort cheese, salami, ham, bread, pickles, and a glass of delicious Macon chardonnay.
On the tour, we’d learned that in Dijon one sits down to dinner between 7:00 and 7:30 pm. Armed with a recommendation from Philipe, Rich and I presented ourselves at an eatery called Dr. Wine promptly at 7:00. All the tables were reserved, the headwaiter informed us, but we could eat in the garden if we promised to leave before a late booking got there at 9:00. Wait, what? You could eat at 9:00 in this town?
I have to admit, Dr. Wine’s food was very good indeed, served in small plates like the heartier kind of Spanish tapas. We started with escargots de Bourgogne, the famous Burgundy snails cooked with garlic, butter, and herbs. Our appetizer included six jumbo snails, a complicated metal grasping tool, and a delicate fork. It was all going well (by which I mean we hadn’t disgraced ourselves by sending any snails flying onto nearby tables) until I tried to eat my last escargot. I could see it, huddled in the inner depths of the shell, but the combined efforts of Rich, a passing waiter, and myself weren’t sufficient to winkle out the little critter.
“Maybe the hour for eating snails has expired,” Rich suggested. No doubt that was the case. I let it rest in peace.
Next we ate slivers of bread topped with two kinds of heavenly cheese, fresh apricots, and a bit of apricot preserve. This was followed by the famous boeuf bourguignon, a hearty beef stew simmered in the region’s trademark red wine. I’ve had this dish before, and Dr. Wine’s was by far the smoothest, richest version I’d ever tasted.
“OK, I'm finally beginning to warm to this town,” I told Rich.
“Don’t get attached,” he said. “We’re off to Paris in a few days.”
Yes, time is getting short. We’re now on the final leg of our long journey, and after a whirlwind visit to the City of Lights, we’ll head south to Spain by rail. Due to the fast pace of the days ahead, I'm posting this earlier in the week than usual. We arrive in Seville on Saturday, which happens to be the day before my birthday.
Whew! It’s been quite a ride.
Once we’re home, I’m planning some serious down time, so don’t expect another post next week, or possibly the week after. Rich and I want to thank all of you so very much for joining us on the journey. Knowing you’re out there enjoying the stories and the recipes has inspired us every step of the way.
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“Deliciosa,” my guests all murmured politely. “Que maravilloso.”
But it was pretty obvious they didn’t really think the dinner Rich and I had prepared was delicious or marvelous. In fact, having accepted the smallest possible servings, they mostly just pushed the food around on their plates as if hoping it would somehow contrive to disappear on its own.
It was November of our second year living in Seville, and in a moment of tipsy bonhomie at a prior gathering, Rich and I had volunteered to fix a full Thanksgiving dinner for my painting class. They were thrilled. The idea they could actually sit down to this iconic American meal, one they’d watched in countless movies scenes, was intoxicating. Rich’s presentation of the turkey brought gasps of admiration. My explanation of each dish brought nods of recognition; yes, they’d seen mashed potatoes in that Woodie Allen film, on Friends, in that movie about close encounters with aliens. It was all perfect — until the moment they had to pick up a fork. Like most Sevillanos at that time, they ate nothing but traditional Spanish fare, and when presented with new foods, they literally couldn’t stomach them.
In vain I pointed out that turkey was commonly sold in Seville’s markets, and that it was hardly distinguishable from chicken. Nobody believed for one second that Rich’s stuffing, a simple dish of coarsely chopped, day-old bread with a little seasoning, was essentially the same as Spanish migas, a traditional dish of coarsely chopped, day-old bread with a little seasoning. The only thing on the table they actually liked was the cranberry sauce. Why? Because it was utterly new, and they had nothing to compare it to, so they could judge it solely on its merits.
As an American, I was raised to view novelty in my diet as a good thing. Being a nation of immigrants, we find it fun to dine on Japanese-Peruvian ceviche nikkei one day and Ethiopian wat the next. Growing up in what’s now Silicon Valley, I take technology in stride and find nothing strange about enhanced superfoods or probiotic breakfast cereals. On the other hand, our standards are so flexible that we accept non-nutritive pseudo-foods laced with dangerous chemicals and additives; in fact, we pack them in kids’ lunchboxes every day.
“America is a new country,” Martine pointed out over dinner in her smart, colorful apartment in the French alps. “In France, in Europe, it’s an old country and we have a long story. It’s a very big story. Since le Moyen Âge [Middle Ages] cooking has been very important everywhere in Europe. In the United States, it’s a new country, so you don’t have a story. So you teach differently and cook differently, and maybe it’s less important for you.”
When I asked Martine about the story behind her cooking, she said that living in the high mountains, it was all about hearty fare for sustaining yourself through severe weather. Common comfort foods were designed to stick to your ribs: cheese fondu, diot (sausages), and crozets (a small, flat, square-shaped pasta). On that warm, mid-September evening, she was preparing something a bit lighter: Blanquette de Lotte, anglerfish with mussels and vegetables.
Martine began developing her cooking skills at the age of ten. In a family that included a grandmother with nine children and 50 grandchildren, she was expected to pitch in and help. There were plenty of aunts around to instruct her in the culinary arts while her own mother was out working. Fortunately, Martine found she quite liked preparing food and later went on to take a cooking course at a well-known restaurant in the nearby town of Chambéry. Eventually she signed up with the private dining group EatWith.
“You are our first EatWith guests,” she told me. I assumed that was because she’d joined only recently, but she explained she’d been on the website for two years.
I was astonished; great food, breathtaking setting, wonderful hosts … what more could people possibly be looking for? Martine explained that most visitors zipped through Chambéry en route to the ski slopes. In fact, she and Patrick raised their eyebrows when Rich mentioned we’d booked five days there. Their voices murmured something polite, but their faces exclaimed, “But what do you do all day there?” In fact, Chambéry was my kind of town: peaceful, picturesque, and with plenty of good food.
Chambéry was delightful, but Martine’s dinner was the unquestionable highlight of our stay. We began the evening on the terrace, admiring the view of Mont Granier and the Belledonnes, sipping a delicate rosé and nibbling on ham with melon, a cheese and anchovy spread, and tapenade.
When Martine returned to the kitchen I followed, my phone’s video camera at the ready. Padding barefoot around her kitchen, she managed to seem quite calm while moving from one task to another so quickly I could barely keep up.
The Blanquette de Lotte was possibly the heartiest fish dish I’ve ever eaten: thick slabs of luscious anglerfish with succulent mussels and a sauce of broth, egg yolks, and crème fraiche. The conversation ranged over everything from travel to families to the art of table setting. Naturally we touched upon the region’s famous role as the original power base of the House of Savoy, a royal family that used diplomacy, economic skill, and shrewd marriages to maintain its influence over world events from 1003 to 1946. By the time dessert came around, the four of us were chatting like old friends.
“This is amazing,” I said, spooning up the last of my baked apple stuffed with crème fraiche and topped with vanilla ice cream. “I can’t stop eating!”
Martine grinned. “I never meet American people who don’t like to eat. You all like to eat. You are very curious and you like to eat.”
And when you think about it, that may be America’s finest gift to world cuisine. Our culinary traditions are all over the place. We have to maintain constant vigilance to keep pernicious corporations from sneaking harmful substances into our diets. Most of us don’t know a sous vide precision cooker from a masticating juicer. But we are enthusiastic omnivores who aren’t afraid to try something new. Oh sure, that can lead us astray when it comes to dubious offerings such as Koolickles (pickles brined in Kool-Aid). But it also gives us the courage to get out there and connect with people around the world, knowing that with luck, we'll discover something to love in the dishes that their ancestors cherished and handed down for centuries.
WANT TO TRY MARTINE'S MOUTHWATERING (YET SIMPLE) RECIPES?
Where are we now? Dijon, France
As you may have guessed, we're in the final phase of Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour.
Just 10 more days to go!
Don't miss the ultimate loony travel tales or the post-return stories about how our clothes held up (some good news and bad news there) and what we've learned from all our varied adventures.
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Want a simple, sure-fire way to break the ice with strangers? Try committing a social faux pas! Rich and I proved the effectiveness of this method yet again last Saturday night when we showed up at a dinner in Turin, Italy with a bottle of white wine as a hostess gift. I’d chilled it in our rental apartment’s refrigerator and now pulled it out of the bag to present it with our compliments.
“Oh my God,” exclaimed Rich. “We brought the wrong wine.”
In my haste, I’d grabbed the bottle we’d sampled two nights earlier. I was mortified. An unopened bottle of wine says, “Thanks for your hospitality.” I’m not quite sure what a partially drunk bottle says. “We’re barbarians who don’t know the first thing about social niceties” perhaps?
Fortunately for us, Carlotta and Paolo were extremely relaxed and easygoing hosts; as we fell all over ourselves apologizing, they just laughed and kept reassuring us it was fine. Meanwhile, Carlotta started handing around glasses of Rocca dei Forti, a delicious, dry, sparkling white wine. “Would you like to try it with a little vermouth?” she asked. Turin is proud of having invented vermouth back in the 18th century, and locals like to incorporate it in drinks whenever possible. We agreed at once and found that adding vermouth gave the flavor a pleasant depth.
We’d connected with Carlotta and Paolo via EatWith, aka “the Airbnb of dining,” a website that enables you to find local chefs offering private meals in their own homes. You review the menu, check available dates, alert them about any food restrictions, and book and pay in advance online. I love this feature, because it lets you arrive at the dinner without any pesky worries about having correct change or deciding whether it’s really worth another ten bucks for a handful of cookies or figuring out how much you should tip when your math skills are dampened by vino excessivo.
A few days earlier, browsing the EatWith site, I’d said to Rich, “This one sounds fabulous. Salami and cheese with truffle honey … risotto with sausage … that weird dish we tried in Cuneo, the veal with tuna we liked so much … and for dessert? Hazelnut cake with a sauce I can’t pronounce.”
“You had me at risotto,” he said. “Sign us up.”
I sent Carlotta a note explaining that we were on a Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour and asking if we could come early and film the cooking. She kindly agreed, and even though we knew wine was included in the meal, we thought we’d show up with a bottle as an extra courtesy to express our gratitude. Oh well, as they say, man plans, and God laughs. Fortunately, God wasn’t the only one laughing that night. The combination of Carlotta’s wine and our little icebreaker soon had us all talking and chuckling like old friends. Note to self: Perhaps make a point of doing something idiotic at the start of every EatWith dinner? Additional note to self: No need to make an effort, this is likely to happen all on its own.
Black and green olives accompanied our wine-and-vermouth aperitif, along with some of the slender breadsticks known as grissini wrapped in prosciutto di Parma (cured ham). Carlotta then produced a platter with local salamis and cheeses, slivers of golden pear, and two sauces — grape compote and honey with truffles — which combined divinely with the cheese.
We learned that Paolo was an architect, and that Carlotta had a small tour guide business called Torino Discovery which, in addition to traditional sightseeing, offers market tours, vermouth tastings, and chocolate sampling expeditions. Carlotta asked where we’d eaten in Turin so far, and I mentioned we had our eye on one with the tongue-in-cheek name Santa Polenta. Carlotta and Paolo cracked up.
“What?” I asked.
“Here in Turin, that’s an expression you use when you want to swear, but need to make it a mild swear,” explained Carlotta. Ah, the local equivalent of drat or gadzooks! That should come in handy. (Incidentally we did make it to Santa Polenta a few days later; see the photos below.)
The conversation naturally revolved around food, and Carlotta confided that she’d had a passion for cooking since she was a young girl. Which made it especially challenging when she learned she’d have to give up gluten altogether.
“At first,” she told me, “when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I thought it was the end. Not only of my good eating, but also of my cooking. But actually, I would say it was a blessing in disguise. Because it helped me to look at things in a different way. And to adjust recipes, even traditional recipes, and to do more research about the science that is behind baking especially, and about cooking in general. All in all it was something that made me progress in my cooking, in my passion, and in my knowledge.”
Her skill and passion became abundantly evident as I watched her prepare the centerpiece of the meal: risotto with sausage. It’s so simple and delicious I’ve promised to make it for Rich as soon as we’re back in our own kitchen.
[Get Carlotta’s Risotto with Sausage recipe here.]
Along with the wonderful risotto, we ate vitel tonnè, thin slices of cold roast veal dressed in a creamy, slightly salty sauce flavored with tuna, a summer favorite in the region. And then, just when I was sure I couldn’t consume another mouthful, it was time for dessert.
“My hazelnut cake is of course flourless,” Carlotta said. “And really quite simple. It has just three ingredients: hazlenuts, eggs, and sugar. On top I put Moscato Zabaione. Would you like to watch me make this sauce?”
Leaving Paolo and Rich chatting at the table, Carlotta and I went into the kitchen, where she proceeded to put egg yolks and sugar in one of those fancy food processors that can also heat the food, a local brand similar to Thermomix. “I use one egg yoke and one tablespoon of sugar per person,” she said, “And for every egg yoke, I add one eggshell of Moscato.” And with that she picked up a half eggshell and used it to measure the sweet Moscato d'Asti dessert wine into the mix. “I make sure the machine heats it enough to destroy any bacteria but not cook the egg.” In minutes she had a thick, sweet, creamy sauce ready to serve.
[Get Carlotta’s Flourless Hazelnut Cake with Moscato Zabaione recipe here.]
Rich and his sweet tooth were in their glory. “This is incredible,” he said, finishing his own piece and eyeing the remains of mine. I had slowed to a halt, having reached my optimal consumption capacity back at the risotto and vitel tonnè stage. I passed my plate to him and he tucked in with a happy sigh.
“You see?” Carlotta grinned. “You can eat a full Italian meal that is good just as a gluten-y meal.”
Santa Polenta, ain't that the gospel truth!
What's your definition of Italian comfort food? Let me know in the comments below.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never accept free goods, services, or fees in return for promoting anything on this blog. Everything I write about is included solely because I believe you might find it interesting and useful for planning your own adventures.
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Where are we now? Turin, Italy
Where are we heading next? The French Alps
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour Continues!
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One of the many things I loved about living in Cleveland was Little Italy, a neighborhood where you could always find outstanding pasta, veal piccata, and Chianti, often served family style with a side of accordion music. A friend took us down there and introduced us to Angelo, owner of Nido Italia (The Italian Nest) in the old Brotherhood Loan Association building across from Holy Rosary Church. Rich and I went there often to eat homemade spaghetti and slow dance to songs made famous by Frank Sinatra.
The mix of romance and mouthwatering goodness has made Italian cuisine a favorite just about everywhere on the planet, from your neighborhood pizza parlor to Antarctica — proof that, as one blogger put it, “in a culinary sense at least, the Romans managed to take over the world.” And its reach is still expanding. A few years ago, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano persuaded the International Space Station to provide the crew with a dinner that reminded him of home: lasagna, risotto, parmigiana, and tiramisu re-engineered for travel into space.
Luca may have found the meal comforting, but I have to confess I consider the idea of reconstituted freeze-dried tiramisu outright horrifying. Having spent the last few weeks savoring Northern Italy’s splendid cuisine, I know it’s all about fresh, local ingredients, recipes passed down for generations, and hands-on preparation in a kitchen that smells of tomato and basil. Somehow I doubt the International Space Station managed to include any of that.
Rich and I got to talking about how our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour has really upped our appreciation of good food. And that’s when it occurred to us how easy it would be for our readers to do much the same thing on a smaller scale — say ten days to two weeks in Northern Italy.
It’s the ideal place to create your own Comfort Food Tour. One glance at the map reveals a cluster of cities synonymous with great eats, such as Bologna, home of Bolognese sauce; Modena, familiar to anyone who uses balsamic vinegar; and Parma, which gave the world Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma. In addition to the famous foodie cities, the region has countless lesser-known towns making mouthwatering contributions to the pleasures of the table.
Google “food Northern Italy” and the culinary treasures of the region pop up. The efficient train system makes it easy to travel from city to city, often in trips lasting just 30 to 40 minutes and costing less than 10€. You may find it convenient to stay in one city and take day trips to the others. Here are a few towns you might want to put on your short list.
Arriving from Croatia, we had a one-night stopover in Trieste, and Rich consulted one of his favorite apps, Triposo, to research nearby eateries. When we arrived at the cozy Trattoria alla Valle we discovered there was no menu and the proprietor only spoke two words of English: “pasta” and “fish.” Fortunately for us, both were delightful.
This ancient city offers an astonishing array of pastas, salumi (cured meat) such as prosciutto di Parma (ham), and cheeses including the iconic Parmigiano-Reggiano. To get a grip on places with this kind of overabundance, I like to connect with a food-savvy local via a cooking class, food tour, or EatWith (dinners in private homes). Cooking instructor Stefania gave us great food and lots of inside info; see my post The Secret Life of Parmesan Cheese for some of what she shared.
I’ve owned countless bottles of supermarket balsamic vinegar. Now, thanks to Stefania and to Cristina at La Consorteria 1966 in Modena, I know the difference between that and the decades-old, barrel-aged version. It’s nearly as thick and dark as molasses, and the tangy-sweet flavor enhances everything from salad to (gasp!) ice cream.
We arrived to find the lovely city of Bologna overrun with tourists during the final days of everyone’s August vacation. In such situations, there’s one sure-fire remedy: we stand with our backs to the cathedral and walk for ten minutes in just about any direction, knowing we’ll wind up someplace more interesting, less crowded, and more affordable.
And that’s how we discovered the unpretentious Trattoria Tony. Tony welcomed us with free mortadella (the grandfather of bologna sausage, aka boloney). To try the city’s iconic pasta sauce, we'd heard you don’t order spaghetti bolognese but rather tagliatelle al ragù: broad, flat noodles with a slow-cooked meat sauce flavored with tomato. Deliziosa!
This overlooked little city has gorgeous old architecture, a mellow vibe, and a cuisine as good as its neighbors’ (which is saying something!). Their signature dish is pisarei e fasö, little dumplings and borletto beans seasoned with tomato sauce and bacon. What a treat! To sample the city’s famous prosciutto, we visited the meat store Macelleria Callegari, where for some reason the proprietor was inspired to fake driving a giant meat cleaver into my head. Butcher humor!
Most famous in the US for Asti Spumanti sparkling wine, Asti is also host to the wild bareback horserace called the Palio di Asti, in which local parishes have competed since the 13th century. Caterina, a member of the Ribero family who run the Hotel Lis where we stayed, managed to finagle us invitations to the pre-race banquet staged by the Cattedrale (Cathedral) parish. We were deep in conversation with Cattedrale supporters when the appetizer arrived at the table: horse tartare, a popular local delicacy.
“These guys really know how to work a theme,” I whispered to Rich. He and I agreed, with tremendous reluctance, that the demands of hospitality required us to eat at least some of it. How was it? Much like steak tartar. I'll never know for sure, but perhaps this sacrifice on our part contributed some positive karma and was part of the reason for Cattedrale’s victory the next day — their first in 42 years.
After the race, Rich and I celebrated at the Campanaro Restaurant with a horse-free meal, concluding with a local specialty, Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto (Peaches Stuffed with Amaretto Cookies and Chocolate). In a city famous for sweet, sparkling wines, you can’t discuss dessert without discussing dessert wines, and at our host’s suggestion, we tried a rich Moscato d’Asti.
[See the recipe for Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto (Peaches Stuffed with Amaretto Cookies and Chocolate).]
For readers who want an excuse to try some good dessert wines (not that any excuse is needed), I’m providing recipes for two of Asti’s most renowned dishes: Campanaro’s Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto and from Caterina at the Hotel Lis, her version of Nocciole Cake. Both recipes naturally include wine suggestions.
[See the recipe for Caterina's Cake.]
Every Comfort Food Tour is different, and you certainly don’t have to eat horse or rabbit or ham to discover the joy of sharing a meal at an Italian table — whether that meal is in Italy itself, your home town, or wherever your travels take you. As the Italians say, “A tavola non si invecchia,” at the table you never grow old. In fact, being at the table, surrounded by good food, family, old friends, new friends, and the memories of other wonderful meals — that’s when we truly come alive.
Have you been to any towns in Italy that you'd include in a Comfort Food Tour? What impressed you most about the cuisine there? Let me know in the comments below.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never accept free goods or services in return for promoting anything on this blog. Everything I write about is included solely because I believe you might find it interesting and useful for planning your own adventures.
WHERE ARE WE NOW? CUNEO, ITALY
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour Continues!
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About Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've just complete a 161-day Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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