Travel

grilled-sea-bass-in-hvarMy wife, Peggy, and I recently returned from a cruise from Barcelona to Venice with a few extra days in the Veneto for wine tasting and despite being an occasional internet food blogger (and therefore a food expert without any real knowledge or training – I do so love the internet), we still learned a few things that might help you eat and drink your way across Europe. Enjoy!

Eat the local food: I know that this can be scary for some, but just do it. Even though Peggy and I were on a cruise, we found plenty of chances to eat off the ship, and part of the fun of traveling is trying what you’ve never had before, or just the better, more authentic local versions of the dishes found at home. For Peggy and me, this meant mounds of homemade pasta in every shape, size and texture – and pasta is never scary. In Sardinia, the pasta was fregola, which looks like big couscous, tossed with local shellfish and bottarga, a local specialty of cured fish roe that has been salted and preserved and then grated over the pasta (okay a little scary, but amazingly good with a briny deep sea flavor). In Malta, we were told rabbit was the local staple and while the few times Peggy and I have eaten rabbit it has felt a bit like eating the Easter Bunny, the fried rabbit was fantastic, with a crisp and sticky garlicky outer shell covering the tender sweet meat. (Once, in Sweden, we were told to try the reindeer, which we ate and enjoyed, but then it felt like eating Rudolf.) In Hvar, Croatia, a small beach resort town, the fish is brought in fresh, and then grilled with coarse salt. We were told to eat it and we did. No regrets.

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playa barceloneta-1483757-300x200“This one, honey, this one looks good.”  I said excitedly to Shannon on our first night in Barcelona.  We were standing in front of a small, lofted restaurant with windowed walls, wood furniture and an elaborate artistic white chandelier.

We had been walking through the city for hours and wound up here in Barceloneta, a triangular neighborhood which jettisons out from Barcelona proper and is famous for gorgeous beaches and trendy restaurants.  It was a clear spring evening following a warm eventful day and we were starving and exhausted.

I have a romantic notion about food while on vacation.  I believe that the most incredible meals will be found in restaurants on curvy, dimly lit side streets, run by generations of ego-free chefs who just want to cook incredible food for their family and whoever might be brave or lost enough to stumble down their road.  This theory gets me into a lot of trouble.

We had walked down many a crooked street that day to no avail.  The restaurant we stood in front of that night, Lonja de Tapas, was clearly not the place in my fantasy (a lot of money had been put into the décor and it was very crowded), but low blood sugar was fueling my optimism and I bounded through the door.

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On my first day in Paris, on our first tour around the Jardins Luxembourg, a charming Persian woman with bouncy curls and smiling eyes stopped me and my entourage of children and a dog for a chat. "The French drive me crazy," she pronounced. "But living in Paris will mean two things for you. You will become both more refined, and more humble." And so the adventure begins...

frenchcheese.jpgIt turns out that there is heaven on earth.  And it lives in an inauspicious plastic saucer, covered in cling wrap.

This week’s cheese was a seemingly unassuming Saint Félicien.   This little number is made in the Dauphiné region of France, and it is soft and extra creamy.   We took our first bite over lunch with the girls, and at Twiggy Sanders’ suggestion, I was armed with a fresh baguette.   

The cheese starts out relatively contained, but by the third bite, the fresh cream had runneth over into the container.  We started to eagerly mop it up with pieces of bread, and within about ten minutes flat, the entire saucer had been wiped clean.

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ImageA fascinating journey can be made driving through the narrow, winding streets of Verona and onto the busy auto strada. Past AGIP gas stations and tessellated pylons contrasting with the verdant countryside and the endless rows of vines upon which tiny grape buds soon would appear. Almond and cherry trees with pale green leaves beginning to decorate their elongated arms, and ancient farmhouses painted in faded pinks and umbers seemed not to have changed since Romeo and Juliet pranced in the sun stroked fields. In the distance smoky purple hills, unperturbed by the comings and goings of travelers and my group of voluble giornalisti, watched over peaceful vistas, till we arrived at the Villa Quaranta.

Set in sculptured gardens, this lovely Villa became a wonderful setting for a very special dinner orchestrated by the chefs of five restaurants from the surrounding areas of Venice, Treviso, Padua, Verona and Vicenza, together with many wine producers of the Veneto. Before the grand scale dinner began, a classical concert was performed by members of the New Italian Percussion Group. A most unusual concert using bottles as instruments: long, tall and thin bottles; fat, round and bulbous bottles; bottles made from green, blue and plain glass and goblets of red and white wine on multi-level shelves producing varied musical tones, all blending into a cacophony of sound.

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IrishCastleLately, almost everything is out of my comfort zone. Even a drive across town has been moved to my bucket list. A trip to the east side of the 405 Freeway feels like I’m a contestant on Survivor.

An invitation arrived in the mail. Come to a wedding at a castle in Ireland. Three days of free food and board. What to do? Are you kidding? Who could resist? I answered yes. And then went into a panic.

Too many planes, trains and automobiles. Being in a car in LA is unnerving enough. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road in County Mayo? That’s my idea of terror.

I decided to be my own travel agent. This would give me some control and help me get used to the whole idea of the trip. A trip, as Rod Serling might say, to the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, to the pit of man’s fears: My Discomfort Zone.

I enlisted an Irish actor I know and asked for travel advice. He was very detailed about which hotel in Dublin to stay at and even suggested a visit to a second castle.

My own research revealed that it would be silly to land at Dublin Airport since the wedding castle is closer to the one in Knock. But you can’t fly to Knock airport directly from the U.S. So we’d travel first to England and stay for three days. London is sort of within my zone of comfort. I’d been there several times and love it. And I’d be visiting with good friends who live there. More comfort.

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