….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”
It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
We had always wondered what the point of mosquitoes actually was. As far as we could see all they do is bite people to suck their blood which causes much irritating itching and, worse, they spread horrible diseases. We might be particularly biased against the nasty little blighters as we seem to be strawberry flavoured to them and are guaranteed to attract any within our vicinity so that they can have a really good feast on us.
But it turns out that mosquitoes have a hugely important – and very beneficial – role in the ecosystem: they pollinate chocolate flowers. Yes, without mosquitoes the cacao trees of Costa Rica would not produce nearly enough fruit and hence there would be less chocolate in the world. And Costa Rica’s chocolate is fantastic quality.
Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most visited locations. The primary reason for visiting would be to experience the cloud forest nature reserve with its abundance of spectacular wildlife.
There are all sorts of other activities available, including adventure tours such as ziplining across spectacular scenery.
And, indeed, a number of foodie tours are also available. Don Juan’s plantation in Monteverde offers the opportunity to see chocolate being produced, as well as coffee and sugar cane.
Cacao trees produce a fruit which has the shape of a rugby ball but is a little smaller. It has a tough orange leathery rind.
You cut it open to reveal 8-12 beans inside, all covered in what appears to be a slimy membrane that is white with a pale greenish tinge. It is these almond shaped beans inside that will become chocolate.
First of all, the beans are removed from the pod and undergo a fermentation process for five days. By day five you can really smell the alcohol. This process helps develop the chocolate flavour.
The beans are then dried naturally by spreading them out in the sun for a couple of weeks before they are roasted.
The roasting gives a bitter note to the complex flavour which feels counterintuitive because we all know chocolate to be sweet. But the sweetness is, of course, due to the vast quantities of sugar added to our favourite childhood confections later on in the process.
Winnowing separates the beans from their shells leaving the cocoa nib which forms the basis of the chocolate. You can eat the nibs directly – they have a slightly bitter flavour.
The nibs are then ground into a paste. The result of this is chocolate mass (also called chocolate liquor) – a combination of cocoa solids and fat in roughly equal proportions, the friction of the grinding process brings out the cocoa butter. The cocoa mass can be processed further to make chocolate or squeezed out in a press to separate the two elements – powder and cocoa butter. In combination, the cocoa mass is what gives chocolate its special qualities – the flavour and aroma from the hundreds of chemical compounds and the amazing meltiness. Cocoa butter doesn’t impart flavour but it has a melting point that is at body temperature which means that chocolate remains solid at room temperature but starts melting in the most gloriously decadent way as soon as you put it in your mouth.
Of course there are lots of variations on the next stage of the processing. The nibs continue to be ground and then other ingredients can be added to produce chocolate. Of course, we are all familiar with the different types of chocolate and very likely have our childhood favourites.
Dark chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass.
Milk chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk or milk powder.
White chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder. Curiously, there is no cocoa mass in white chocolate.
There is a further process to making chocolate and that is tempering, which creates uniform crystals of the cocoa butter and makes the texture of the chocolate smoother and less prone to cracking. Tempering involves heating the chocolate to about 50⁰C in order to melt all the types of crystals that form, then agitate at 27⁰C then heat slightly to 31⁰C. This gives the chocolate its silky shininess.
We tried some of the products on offer. These treats were direct from the plantation and had had minimal processing.
Pure cocoa butter is all about the texture – soft and luscious, it is completely different to the white chocolate bars you grew up with as a kid.
And, of course, we couldn’t refuse a cup hot of chocolate made direct from grated cocoa mass. It is a rich, smooth, warming, slightly bitter drink – a very adult hot chocolate.
Warning for no photographs at all. We grew up using film cameras. The ones where you have a maximum of 24 or 36 shots on each roll of film and, once used, you had to wait for weeks for the films to be developed at the laboratory and for the prints to be sent back home. You chose your shot carefully, you composed it, each and every picture was a precious thing. Digital photography is fantastic in so many ways – we would never have taken a picture of our meal using celluloid! – but with such easy access to cameras and phones and virtually unlimited shot potential sometimes it feels as though we are so busy capturing pictures for posterity that we forget to experience the moment.
Tortuguero on the Eastern coast of Costa Rica isn’t really how you’d expect the Caribbean to be. Even though you can get a lovely drink of coconut water directly from the pod, the coastline is wild, the sea rough and you probably wouldn’t sunbathe on the beach. You definitely would not want to go swimming in the sea for fear getting eaten by sharks. You also wouldn’t want to swim in the channel on the other side of the peninsula for fear of getting eaten by caiman. But it’s the most amazing place to view some of Costa Rica’s wildlife.
The weather is hot and humid. Really hot and very humid. The area experiences about 6000 mm of rainfall every year and when it rains, it rains. We recommend waterproof ponchos. There was no aircon in the lodge we were staying in, just an old-fashioned fan, which provided a minimal amount of respite. The waves pounding relentlessly on the beach provided an aural backdrop.
One of the main attractions are the turtles that come to the beach to nest. Each species has a different nesting season. We visited in late June, just before the season when the greenback turtles were expected to come ashore. Although our hotel wouldn’t offer a guide because they couldn’t guarantee a sighting, we found a local guide who was willing to take us out and gave us a discount on his usual price, although he emphasised that we might not get a viewing. We decided to take a chance. We knew we were very close to the nesting season and we were pretty sure that the greenbacks weren’t lurking a few km offshore checking their greenback calendars to wait for the 1st of July.
We met our guide at 9pm and were given a briefing. The tours are undertaken to ensure minimal disruption to the turtle. No white light was allowed on the beach at all, the guide had a red torch so that we could – just about – see our way in the dark. In fact, even the local houses that line the shore refrain from using white light in their dwellings so as not to discourage the turtles from coming ashore. A small group of us walked in single file along a stretch of beach. It was really hot and very humid, even at that time of night. Our guide was looking for ‘tramlines’ going up the beach, a sign that a female turtle had come ashore. These appear to be parallel lines when you view them at a distance in the dark but, on closer inspection, the tramlines are actually distinct flipper tracks.
Other groups were scanning different sections of the beach and the guides kept in touch with each other via mobile phone. After walking 1 km to the village and a further 2 km along the beach we learned that a female had come ashore just 100 m away from our hotel. We had to dash back. Did we mention how hot and humid it was? As it turned out, we could have simply sat in the bar drinking cocktails then sauntered onto the beach. Instead, it was a hot, sweaty trot. We earned our turtle.
By the time we had arrived the greenback had traversed the width of the beach from the ocean shore to a location above the high tide mark, had dug a hole and was starting to lay her eggs. Cameras, phones and even torches are – rightly – banned on the beach. There were a couple of other groups who wanted to view the turtle. The aim was to ensure that everybody got a view without disturbing her. She was facing away from the shoreline and had her back to the tourists. Groups of ten people, five kneeling, five standing behind them were allowed to view the turtle for a couple of minutes at a time. Silence was mandatory. Then each group stepped back to let another group have a viewing. Throughout the process each group took a turn – step forward and view, step back and wait.
This greenback had been born on this beach. She was the 1% of all her siblings that had made it to adulthood, had travelled thousands of miles across the ocean and returned to the place of her birth. The egg laying was a real labour for the turtle. She laid around 100 eggs and after the final one, used her back flippers to push sand gently across to cover them all. Once the eggs were covered she then used her front flippers to brush across the sand, disguising the fact that a hole had even been present. These flippers were strong and no one knelt to watch that part of the process– they would have ended up with sand in their faces. Then the tourists melted away to let the turtle rest before she returned to the ocean.
In the spirit of no images, we woke up the next morning elated at our luck. The birds were singing, the Atlantic Ocean (heard in the background rumble) was crashing on the shore. This is how it sounded.