Tag Archives: Food porn

Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

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Favorite and Unique Foods in the Costa Blanca Area of Spain

23 Jul
fresh fish and fishmongers

Fresh fish and fishmongers

Being a foodie and lover of nearly everything from the sea, I feel like I am living in food paradise here in Altea, which is on the Mediterranean in the Costa Blanca area of Spain. I previously spent time with a friend, originally from the city of Valencia, just an hour north of Altea. She always provides interesting cultural and historical information about the area.

 

We went to the old town area of Benidorm for tapas, also known as pintxos. I must add that Benidorm is a place I usually avoid, as it is known for drunks, bad behavior, crazy “hen” and “stag” (in the U.S. known as bachelorette and bachelor parties), exotic dancers, legal prostitution, and mediocre entertainment. However, there are a few redeeming activities, including the tapas spots in the old town, many of which are similar to those in San Sebastian, a culinary delight which boasts the most Michelin stars per square meter, and three of Spain’s three star restaurants out of a total of seven. Like any touristic spots, it is easy to end up in a place with mediocre food and poor service. That is where a local friend can be helpful.

 

Sepia

Sepia

We started at a parallel street to the main tapas alley, where we enjoyed a small glass of wine accompanied by a simple, but tasty tapa of orejas fritas (fried sheep ears) for only 1€. We then moved on to the main tapas alley restaurants. My friend explained the specialties of each. One featured suckling pig and suckling lamb, common to areas of central Spain like Toledo, south of Madrid. (No hate mail please.) My youngest son and I are big fans of sepia (cuttlefish, similar in texture to calamari “steaks”) and small fried octopus legs (rejos,  which have a similar texture and taste to calamari rings and tentacles.) While in Benidorm we ordered huevos de sepia, (eggs of sepia.) Obviously, not every tapa appeals to everyone, but it is fun to go with friends, and share various tapas, including ones never tried before.

 

Besides the omni-present many varieties of regional Spanish jamones (hams) and delicious cheeses available throughout Spain, each area of Spain has its own specialties.

Party-size mejillones (mussels)

Party-size mejillones (mussels)

Even travelling only a half hour inland, one will find different local specialties. Rabbit is popular in my area. There is a dizzying variety of fish and seafood. After a year, I am still struggling to learn the names of all the fish, and shellfish. For example, there are many varieties of bi-valves, not just mussels and clams, but many types of each of them. The specialty seafood markets and even the regular grocery stores have an incredible amount of fresh stock, with fishmongers ready to prepare them to your specifications. You won’t see any fresh fish which is already fileted. Another unexpectedly delicious find was gulas also known as angulas (baby eels) which have the consistency as thick spaghetti with a seafood taste, They can easily be prepared with shrimp, garlic and abundant olive oil (after all, Spain produces the most in the world) and baked for a short time. They are also used in many other ways including salads and toppings for tapas.

 

Gulas (baby eel) and shrimp

Gulas (baby eel) and shrimp

Squid ink pasta or paella are delicious if you like that inky seafood taste. I find the black color to be an inviting, unique experience. On one occasion, when my son and I were at an outdoor venue for salsa-dancing, we ordered the paella negra with seafood. I was surprised that of the 15 or so fellow dancers sharing our table, ex-pats who now live here, none had previously tried it. After a first cautious bite, each of them dug in for more.

 

Paella is a Spanish dish originating in Valencia, so there are many choices of types of paella from which to choose, although there is only one traditional type according to the hardcore, which consists of rice (typically bomba), green beans, rabbit or chicken, snails, saffron and other seasoning cooked in a shallow pan. Other popular local paellas include paella negra (squid ink previously mentioned), verduras (vegetable), a la banda (with squid rings), and mariscos (seafood.) However, there are many iterations of paella, including but not limited to arroz meloso (a slightly moister rice dish) and arroz caldoso (a soupier rice dish.) It is not unusual for a restaurant specializing in rice dishes, an arrocería, to have 10 to 20 rice dishes.

 

fideuawithrabbitandseafood

Fideua with rabbit and seafood

Another popular dish is fideua, which is a dish prepared similar to paella, but made with small pasta instead of rice. For both paella and fideua, which are freshly made to order, allow at least 30 minutes for preparation. But since this is Spain, your meal is likely to last at least two hours anyway.

 

Cocido de pelotas (a stew made with “balls”) is a hearty stew with cabbage-wrapped balls made of ground meat, spices and a binder. Homemade, good quality pelotas are widely available at local butcher shops. The weekly local farmers’ market offers delectable, seasonal fruits and vegetables.

 

Bounty of weekly farmers' market

Bounty of weekly farmers’ market

When I went for pizza, very popular here as in many places in the world, I saw the special topping of the day was “granada.” Although I speak decent Spanish, that word was unfamiliar. I learned it is the word for pomegranate, which actually sounds quite similar. This time of year Valencian oranges are abundant and incredibly cheap, which make delicious fresh orange juice, known here as zumo (not jugo as is commonly used in many Latin American countries.)

 

While I do love the food here, there are some things I miss that are not readily available here, including Mexican-style corn tortillas; many Asian condiments; spices like sage, allspice, red chili flakes, habaneros or other spicy chiles; and my shameful favorite junk food, Cheetos.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Gallery: Treviso Italy

23 May

Here are some photos of my recent trip to Treviso, Italy, in the Veneto region, just north of Venice.

 

 

 

Historic and Tasty Jijona: Costa Blanca Day Trip

18 Dec
Jijona (Xixona)

Jijona (Xixona)

Another great day trip in the Costa Blanca area of Spain is a day in Jijona, a short drive in the hills northwest of Alicante. Jijona, also known in Valenciano as Xixona, is famous for its Turrón, an almond-based nougat.

 

Turrón is particularly popular at Christmas time in Spain. Jijona has a yearly four-day Christmas festival, which obviously features turrón, along with other Christmas- and winter-oriented gifts, like hats, scarfs, toys and more.

Jijona Christmas festival

Jijona Christmas festival

 

Turrón is typically made from finely ground almonds, egg whites, honey and sugar. It comes in a variety of textures and forms. There is one with a soft paste-like consistency, which, to me, had a gritty, not pleasing texture. There are soft and hard turrón bars, with pieces of almonds. I saw chocolate-flavored turrón, turrón-flavored gins and liqueurs, and many other non-traditional additions. Samples are generously provided from the Christmas parade of wooden stands located in the central market. There are also other Christmas-related exhibits, and food/tapas booths with adjacent seating where people can rest their feet, and enjoy a snack and beverage.

 

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

The Moors brought almond farming and turrón to Spain during their occupation of the area. During the 16th century, King Felipe II praised turrón, which increased its popularity. Historically, there were a few main families who dominated the turrón market. These decaying family mansions feature beautiful architecture and are visible on one of the main streets in Jijona: Monerris Planelles family home, Rovira family home, and Aracil family home. Only turrón made in Jijona and Alicante can receive the official seal of authenticity, “Consejo Regulador de Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.” There are tours available at the turrón museum and factory. Several other areas have a similar type of nougat like turrón, including Catalonia (Spain), France and Sicily.

 

Snow well

Snow well

There are other interesting things to see in Jijona including historical churches and a convent, the remains of a castle (destroyed in the Spanish War of Succession), “and snow wells” (thick walled round buildings located in the cool Carrasqueta mountain range which came into use in the 18th century to store snow for making ice cream.) In August, there is a Moros y Cristianos festival, which are very popular in the province of Alicante. Parking is typically a fair distance from the touristic areas, but are well-marked and on an easy, gradual incline.

 

 

Inside Secrets to Spain: Top 3 Tips

19 Nov

Here is my article about Spain which was just published in Insiders Abroad:

http://www.insidersabroad.com/spain/blogs/inside-secrets-to-spain/posts/gallery-thumb-thumb-thumb-expat-spotlight-dawns-top-3-tips-for-spain

Visual Collage of Altea Spain This Week

29 Mar
Carpaccio: El Bodegon de Pepe

Carpaccio: El Bodegon de Pepe

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Fish with mussels and clams

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Tapas at Playa Fronton

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Door on Carrer Sol

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Ensalada mixta

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First station of the cross

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Part of Palm Sunday procession from my apartment window

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El Castell pizza: best in Altea

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View of Casco Antiguo from my friends’ Barry and Karen’s apartment

 

High waves on windy day

High waves on windy day

Food photos from Altea Spain

22 Mar
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Flowers at market

 

Spain is well-known for its culinary excellence, but perhaps less well understood is how regional the food is. For example, when we were in Toledo, the offerings included suckling lamb, suckling pig, quail, partridge which are available in that area. Here in Altea, located in the province of Valencian on the coast of the Mediterranean, the focus is naturally on fish, seafood and the bounty of local fruits and vegetables. There is a significant presence of typical French fare including baguettes, crepes, and pate, and Italian items including pasta and pizza. In this post, I will feature photos of some of the local products including from the weekly farmer’s market and local supermarket.

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