….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.
While sorting through our loft room recently, we came across a number of holiday souvenirs from our childhoods. It seems as though travel blogging was in our stars. In the olden days (as our goddaughter likes to say), you know, when we had three TV channels, used rotary dial telephones and the concept of the world wide web lay in the realms of science fiction, we had scrapbooks, postcards, felt-tipped pens and glue. A very lucky little girl went to America for the first time in 1979. Little did she know then that the trip of a lifetime would become a lifetime of trips.
So, without further ado (with a very brief aside to offer apologies to the goat), please find Mitch’s very first travel pre-blog blog:
Over forty years later, we still keep ticket stubs and brochures as souvenirs. They are slowly filling up our house…
Director: Robert Allan Ackerman
Food Type: Ramen (if you couldn’t guess)
Film Rating: 6/10
Foodie rating: 8/10
The subgenre of ramen based foodie films came to its apotheosis with the noodle nirvana of Tampopo (1985). Here the Japanese pasta sub-subgenre gets an American twist with The Ramen Girl, a learn-to-cook Japanese foodie film set in Japan and, surprisingly for a Hollywood film, it has a significant amount of (helpfully subtitled) dialogue in Japanese. It is also a romantic comedy, albeit one centred on food and culture; so more a ramen-tic comedy.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) has travelled to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Ethan (Gabriel Mann). But it seems that he couldn’t care less, taking a job in China at the first opportunity, he leaves her alone in his half empty apartment. Weeping with sadness at her situation she enters the eatery across the road, which is right in the middle of closing for the night, bawling her eyes out. Bemused by the distraught foreign girl in their midst, the owner and his wife give her some of the remaining ramen to see if it will assuage her misery and persuade her to leave so that they can go to bed. Abby devours the ramen and quaffs the broth and, in doing so, becomes intoxicated by the ramen experience. She comes up with an obsessive idea – to learn to cook ramen. So she seeks lessons from chef and owner Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida). But this is not a simple student and mentor situation as Maezumi is a tough employer who gets her to engage in tasks such as cleaning the bathroom rather than cooking. It is not aided by the fact that even though the establishment’s sign marks it as a soba restaurant (そば蕎麦 – buckwheat noodles) its unhappy proprietor is regularly anything but sober. But Abby pursues her new career by persevering. She does manage to develop a social life and find new friends when she visits a club in Roppongi where she re-meets a bunch of western acquaintances, including Gretchan (Tammy Blanchard) and they get talking to Japanese salaryman Toshi Iwamoto (Soji Arai), who seems to be a bit more coherent than his associates. Abby and Toshi start dating and so her relationship blossoms alongside her ramen tuition. But then her progress comes to a frightening prospect when she learns that, “The master’s coming in two months.” This renowned ramen critic’s evaluation could result in laudation or humiliation. Maezumi is surprisingly optimistic about Abby’s chances and establishes a wager with a rival ramen proprietor which could lead to major consequences for both Abby and his well-established business. He even takes Abby to visit his mother who reveals her own profound ramen philosophies. What holds for Abby, and indeed Maezumi, in the future?
The Ramen Girl is a mixed bowl of ramen and broth that is distinct in its exploration of cross-cultural misunderstandings and the humour or challenges that result. The main characters have rounded back stories but ultimately the food is the driver to the events in this film. Learning ramen from a sensei seems to be a similar process to learning kung-fu from a sifu. There are difficult, strenuous, apparently mundane tasks that go on for an age before actual understanding the required skills to implement the technique that the master is teaching. These are important to Abby’s understanding even as they are apparently futile.
The competitive nature of developing cookery skills for a discerning master is a theme in many cooking films such as Jadoo-Kings of Curry, King of Cooking, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Here, the emphasis lies with the broth, its creation and its flavour, not to mention the side effects on the palette and spiritual/emotional response of consuming the concoction, is central to this film’s (very discrete) philosophical assertions. Early on we see how Maezumi’s creations can, in the right circumstances, create impulsive mirth and happiness in his clients as Abby declares, “I wanna make people happy the way you do.”
The food in the film is 95% ramen based but there is a notable exception where cross-cultural cuisine is the focus of one delightful scene. It’s Christmas and Abby, wearing an elf hat and having had her attempts to decorate the restaurant savagely mocked by Maezumi, has returned to her flat where Gretchan has moved in. The pair celebrate with a drink and a KFC Bargain Bucket, a familiar food take away for an American but KFC is also the Christmas meal that one eats in Japan. The romance of the film is definitely ramen-based, however, when Toshi takes Abby on a date to visit the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, foodie heaven, which also offers a historic depiction of ramen throughout the years as well as the flavours of broth throughout the regions of Japan – with the inevitable consequences of a bloated but happy stomach.
The Ramen Girl is a mixed concoction of East meets West which, whilst not departing from genre expectations, at least blends them together in a different way that is sweet and fun. Not haute cuisine but satisfactory for when you feel peckish.
It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed.
There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna. You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including porters, make the trip each day. High season runs from April until October and it is usually worth booking well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.
An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. Again, it’s worth getting help with the transport arrangements and ticketing from a tour operator. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.
Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour. You need to have a ticket for entry to Machu Picchu and they are timed these days, showing the earliest time you are allowed to arrive, in order to control the crowds.
Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.
Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (note the amazing structures at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.
Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site and have made some assessments as to what many of the features were – probably – used for.
The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.
The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.
The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.
The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.
The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.
It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.
The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.
The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.
And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.
You’re allowed to wander all around Machu Picchu as long as you’re careful with the ruins (stewards will blow a whistle at tourists who touch the stones). The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.
Most visitors are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below, which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)
Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.
We climbed Huayna Picchu on our second day. It’s the mountain you see in the background of the classic shots of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up there each day, so we started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.
You have to sign in and out and you are not allowed to start your hike after 1pm.
It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.
There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.
Needless to say, the view was stunning.
A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.
There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.
Less than an hour’s drive from the bustling capital Santiago is Chilean wine country. The Maipo valley is ideally located for growing vines – a combination of perfect soil, altitude and climate.
Concha y Toro is probably Chile’s most famous wine producer – its wines are exported all over the world. Their working vineyard isn’t available to visit, which is a shame, but just outside the village of Pirque they have a visitors’ centre whereby you can tour the grounds and cellars as well as visit a very big shop. There are tours available in English and Spanish which all have a set starting time.
The vineyard was established in 1883 by Chilean businessman Melchor Concha y Toro who recognised the potential for winemaking in Pirque. He procured French vines from Bordeaux and invested in the equipment needed to start producing wine on a grand scale.
You get to see the exterior of the family house, its gardens and a display areas showing the different grape varieties with commentary on how the grapes are cultivated.
Then it’s into the cool, cool cellars where you can see lots of barrels and a sound and light display.
There was a legend that in the early days of the winery, despite the cellars being locked, bottles of wine used to go missing overnight. The owners started a rumour that the devil lurked within the cellars. And since that rumour circulated, not a single bottle of wine ever went missing again.
You are given a tasting glass which you can keep. (If you are travelling to other destinations, stuff a t-shirt inside the bowl, wrap it around the whole glass, taking special care to protect the slender stem, place the whole lot gently back into its souvenir box and hope for the best – both of our glasses survived a further fortnight travelling around South America.) And receiving a glass means you get to taste a variety of the winery’s produce.
Originally grape varieties were brought over from Europe (Bordeaux) and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Carménère. The latter is very rare in Europe these days, having been pretty much destroyed by the dreaded phylloxera, a sap-sucking bug, so Chile is now the Carménère capital of the world. It’s a variety that we had never tried before. The wine we tasted was incredibly fruity, like raspberries and cherries with sour notes and a lingering finish.
As with all the grape varieties the vines are watered using only a teeny amount of water. Literally a few drops per day. This means that the plants work extra hard to produce fruit which leads to a higher yield and, of course, more wine.
The wines on offer for tasting included a smooth blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon, a mellow Carménère and a zingy Sauvignon Blanc.
We took full advantage of being in Chile to sample the local wine – it was massively cheaper than in the UK. Even visiting ordinary supermarkets to stock up on a tipple was definitely worthwhile – we could taste some really splendid wines for a fraction of the price that it would have cost in our home country.
Central Argentina may not be at the very top on an itinerary when visiting the country, but it does offer some interesting places to visit. The cities are easy to fly to direct from Buenos Aires and, for lower budget travellers, the bus network is very good. Overnight buses, in particular, have a variety of services available, including a double decker first class option that offers a reclining bed, TV and food. It’s about a 5 hour journey from BA to Córdoba which is often used as a transit city when travelling from the coast to the mountains.
We were based in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina by population. It’s a pleasant city and it’s possible to undertake a number of day trips to interesting places from there – all an easy bus journey within an hour or two of the centre.
Alta Gracia is a small and pretty town in the Sierras Chicas. A former Jesuit residence has now been converted to the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuitica Alta Gracia museum which has an interesting history of Jesuits in the area.
The Jesuits built El Tajamar, a lake which forms a focal point for the town. It’s worth hanging out by the clocktower at one end of the lake; it not only offers tourist information but is also a focal point for entertainment in the area – music and dance shows are regular events.
Che Guevara spent twelve years of his childhood in Alta Gracia until he moved to Buenos Aires in 1944 to study medicine and thereafter become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. His story is told in the fabulous film, The Motorcycle Diaries based on his book of the same name. The house he lived in has been converted into an interesting museum.
Villa General Belgrano, to the south-west of Cordoba, somewhat bizarrely, offers a little slice of Germany right in the middle of Argentina. It was established in 1930 and is a distinctly alpine town with traditional Bavarian architecture.
Food-wise, you can enjoy local versions of sausages, Spätzle and strudel amongst many traditional German delicacies, all of which can be washed down with a stein or two of beer. The town has an Oktoberfest event – an annual beer festival – held each October which, after Munich in Germany and Blumenau in Brazil, is considered to be one of the most important in the world.
When visiting any towns and cities in central Argentina one of biggest impressions that strikes you as you walk around the area, particularly the suburbs, is the aroma, which is predominantly that of meat cooking. It is a mouth-watering scent. Argentinians are well known for their love of meat, especially beef. Asado is the Argentine equivalent of a barbeque and is massively popular, particularly at weekends.
The word asado refers to both the cooking technique and the event. Most apartment buildings in the city have an asados area where residents can book space and enjoy family time cooking and eating good food together. The area will include a parilla (pronounced ‘parisha’ in Argentine Spanish as the ‘ll’ takes a ‘sh’ rather than a ‘y’ sound), a small kitchen area and benches to prepare and eat your food. You are responsible for clearing up afterwards and leaving the area clean and tidy for other residents to enjoy their asado at another time. We were delighted to be invited to a family asado in Cordoba.
There are two parts to the parilla – the v-shaped firebox and the grill. You need to make sure you have fuel. It’s quite common to scour the local area for wood/grasses to burn on the fire. First the fire needs to be started. Wood or charcoal are the most common fuels. Apparently it is not the done thing to use lighter fluid or briquettes – pine cones are sometimes used if the fire is not being very co-operative when starting up.
These flames burn too fiercely to cook the meat directly, so the firebox gets really hot then coals from the embers are transferred to the grill and spread around the cooking area. The meat is then placed on the grill above these coals. Traditionally the cook is the asador, invariably male, who takes on responsibility of watching over the feast.
Argentine meat is superb quality and very good value. Bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is a thick cut sirloin steak, which usually comes with a generous layer of fat – and remember, fat is flavour.
Meat is most definitely the main attraction of the meal. Everything else is secondary. The steak is served with just a hat-tip to carbs – usually bread -which is ideal to mop up the delicious juices – and some token salad so that the meal appears to have a semblance of nutritional balance. Sauces aren’t very common in Argentina either, although the heavenly piquant and gorgeously green chimichurri, which is usually comprised of chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, all blended together, would be a good accompaniment.
Wine, often a rich, fruity red Malbec, accompanies the food, but beers are also popular. The whole process of cooking, eating and socialising together makes for a very pleasant and relaxing way of spending the afternoon, which can then turn into a rather enjoyable evening as well.
BRAND: Sapporo Ichiban
FLAVOUR: Chow Mein
No. OF SACHETS: Two – green laver and soup base
‘Japan’s No. 1 Selling Brand,’ the package announces in a handy packaging star graphic before continuing to ensure that you are aware that it comes ‘with Natural and Artificial Flavors.’ This is what we want: the best of both worlds. If you are going to put artificial flavourings in a product don’t hide it, flaunt it. Technology is your friend both in and out of the kitchen, so embrace it!
Despite the fact that this tastes absolutely nothing like any chow mein I’ve ever eaten this is a surprising winner. There is an almost jet black stock that is mightily tasty and slightly sour. There is no heat to disguise anything, just honest chemicals to tickle your taste buds. You really do have to go for this yourself, you won’t be disappointed, the noodles are just perfect and the portion is more than generous. And where else can you get a bag of gloriously green laver with your purchase, I ask you? Highly recommended.
*Retro noodle packet
As with all recipe books be sure to follow the directions otherwise you may find that your bowls are not what they seem.
“Food is interesting. For instance, why do we need to eat?” questions the aphorism guru The Log Lady before providing an in-depth consideration of edible ethics.
So here, for you to digest, are a plethora of dishes inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (Population 51,201, although that varies).
Food is an integral part of many films but is particularly important in television series where diners, restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes and coffee shops are often central to character and plot development as much as food and its preparation. The quirky, surreal and occasionally bizarre TV 1990s drama Twin Peaks was no exception and a multitude of dishes, delicacies and general foodie oddness stretched across the series. Coffee was integral, especially for FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper who could often discuss the coffee served: “You know, this is – excuse me – a damn fine cup of coffee,” and his preference for a brew that is “black as midnight on a moonless night,” to the extent that canned Georgia Coffee in Japan even had its own great Twin Peaks adverts that tied in with the series in its own very distinct way. And then, of course, there are the cherry pies. Indeed the basis of the title of this cookery book, coupled with its delightful cover illustration, depicts Twin Peaks as slices of pie.
Before starting, there are a couple of points to mention. This publication has not been prepared, approved or licensed by any entity or individual that created or produced the TV programme. It also is focussed on the Twin Peaks world of the original series and Fire Walk With Me film rather than the series filmed and set 25 year later that reassembled the location, characters and crew to offer new directions and dimensions. This is, however, not a problem in any way and gives the original series, and its cuisine, a welcome exploration.
Damn Fine Cherry Pie – Recipes Inspired by Twin Peaks does not hold back on the number and diversity of recipes on offer so there is something for everyone. Indeed, as the title would suggest, “They’ve got a cherry pie there that’ll kill ya.” There are two such recipes to choose from – the Shelly Johnson version or a useful vegan pie from Norma Jennings. But there is more to enjoy aside from the cooking as there are a number of other excursions into the world of Twin Peaks you can engage with, from quizzes, origami and even a Ludo game. If planning a Peaks party there are fashion and costume options to ensure that you look the part at any gathering and also, should you have more seductive foodie Peaky plans, you can (practice required) learn to tie a knot a cherry stalk like Audrey Horne.
“This must be where pies go when they die,” is one of the show’s many memorable quotes and fortunately there’s an interesting tasty Blueberry Whoopie Pie on offer with helpful owl themed design for that dessert. There are many sweet foods on offer, so varieties of donut imbue the pages – including Coffee Donuts. Then there’s the mix of sweet and savoury that can’t be beaten when making Maple Ham Pancakes: “Nothing beats the taste sensation when maple syrup collides with ham.” For Scandinavian food fans (or guests at the Great Northern hotel) there are recipes for Icelandic Hangikjot and Norwegian Meatballs and Gravy. But do remember there are rules to abide amidst all this culinary joy; “never drink coffee that has been anywhere near a fish.” Wise words, perhaps, although you’ll be pleased to know there is an extremely tasty looking trout based Percolator Fish Supper here, which sounds ideal with its bourbon, garlic butter and lemon. We would contend that you should never eat fish that has been anywhere near coffee, but that could well be personal preference.
The recipes are all related to characters, events and environments in the series. Overall it’s a fun foodie folio that offers a lot to create and eat but also provides perspectives for Twin Peaks gatherings as well as the desire to re-watch (or watch if you’ve never experienced it before) a television classic of murder, mystery and distinct surrealism. Recommended both for daily meals and, particularly, for those Twin Peaks parties you know you always wanted to have or just a good old-fashioned series binge watch. With a damn fine cup of coffee of course. And perhaps a slice of cherry pie. Or two.
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.
Much of Peru is at altitude as the Andes mountain range takes up a considerable part of its land mass. This can be a problem for visitors as a visit to this marvellous country can result in altitude sickness when staying at height. While the amazing Inca ruins at Machu Picchu are at an altitude of around 2400m, the city of Cusco, from where most trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail begin, is at an altitude of around 3400m and that is a bit of a shock to the system.
When arriving in Cusco, especially if you fly in from Lima, the coast or the jungle, it is advisable to take things easy for a couple of days.
It’s a lovely city to wander around – gently – with a variety of good restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and some interesting museums.
Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and sees colonial architecture sit alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. Plaza de Armas is right at the heart of the city centre, a large square with the city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes – a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle. As with most central squares across the world the restaurant prices are likely to be higher than if you wander through the back streets and discover some of the less prominent, although no less quality, dining options. And there are likely to be vendors wanting to sell their wares to tourists.
There are some sites to visit close to the city, the most notable of which is Sacsayhuaman, a dramatic citadel initiated by the Killke and expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside about Cusco. The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them. If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.
There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.
There are also some fascinating day trips to take around the Inca Valley. And, of course, Cusco is the main city from which to access the railway stations that run the trains to Aguas Calientes for access to Machu Picchu or to head out for the Inca Trail.
At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You don’t feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering if you need to be working out more. More serious reactions include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest. Make sure you are well hydrated, avoid consuming alcohol and smoking. And acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.
One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but is apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.)
Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the Coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.
You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.
Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.