Category Archives: Travel

Great food/photo blog; Eating Asia

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This image comes from EatingAsia which I have been reading for some time. Check it out as an example of a great blog in every way.

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Best Food Writing in Recent Memory

Food Sichuan Pepper

Fuchsia Dunlop’s book of last year, is perhaps the best food book I have ever read. The content alone is entrancing but she takes food writing to a new level.

She describes how even someone with exposure to many unusual cuisines might still find Chinese cuisine daunting. Intrepid, she will eat anything but relates how it took her some time to endure, then appreciate and finally seek out those textures we in the West find appalling. The gristly and rubbery among them. Her art is in conveying not only the grotesqueness of some of these foods but also how one could find them appetizing.

Not only does she eat her way through China, she trains as a cook in the cuisine. Its a wonderful inside look, informative, eye opening,and above all, entertaining.

Ottawa thoughts: January 2008

Spent the last few days mostly flying. To Ottawa for a meeting and all those sorts of things that go with it. Anyways, just a few rambling thoughts while enroute.

1. Security checks. What will they do when they find out you can make explosive clothing? Issue everyone hospital gowns for the flight? And those restrictions on toiletries….I think a smart airline would hand out packages of shampoo and toothpaste to everyone as they disembarked.

2. Flying in general. Each time there seemed to be a significant delay in getting off the plane. European low cost airlines had two used exits, like a bus. Great idea. Can you imagine if every time you took a cab you had to wait for three minutes to get out?

3. Airline entertainment. On Air Canada they have little screens on the back of most seats and you can pick from many movies, tv shows etc. And boy was I happy about the headphones on the trip back when a man slumped over his own not inconsiderable stomach (not obese enough to qualify for the extra free seat that has just been legally declared..and that is worth a rant elsewhere) slept and loudly snored for the whole flight. So anyway because things are so wonky with the system I watched In the Valley of Elah which seemed good but started stop go stopping and then ground to a total halt halfway through. Then watched Invasion with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in German (which I can partially speak) with Japanese subtitles. The English would take me to French, and the French to German and the German to the Italian, and the Italian would just shut down the movie. I think it was good, and maybe it seemed even classier because it was now a foreign film though the soundtrack slightly preceeded the action so that when Nicole was maybe or maybe not shooting someone, she would still seem to be deciding as you heard a shot. It was still tense but in a different kind of way. Also I mean classy in as classy as you can get when the means of transmission is one person vomiting in the mouth of another. A remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; has there ever been a really bad version of this?

Also saw a little of Jody Foster in The Brave One which ended because we were landing. (I did go through five selections in a row with all reporting “not available at this time”). Though in English this also had Japanese subtitles…looking around it just seemed to be me getting this special service…had I pressed some hidden control?)

4. Valet service, no less. So end up going to this function at the 18 club, which my Ottawa friend (who I’ve known from my schooldays) tells me is tres chi chi (though he would eat nails before ever uttering such a phrase). And yes, valet service in front. I have always had a hard time accepting that certain professions consist of doing things that not only can anyone do for themselves but things that aren’t all that unpleasant either. Its modernish inside and what they called Big Apples (Bacardi big apple rum, green apple Sour Puss, Asian Pear Liqueur & butterscotch schnapps) were in every hand. Then comes the endless parade of small portioned foods. Not exactly tapas; I’ve had those, and they can be of a size but things like a cheesecake drizzled with one thing and infused with another and served on a spoon. The biggest items were various small sate. They even had a very small hamburger held together by a toothpick and sporting a very small comical but precisely accurate bun. After sampling and sampling and a few too many Big Apples considering my friend was picking me up for drinks, he did.

5. The walk down tavern. We parked and walked down a seedy throughfare to what looked like a fourplex kind of entrance to a basement suite. I don’t remember seeing any sort of sign, and on entering, found a warm, happy and bustly neighborhood feeling pub with four different stouts on tap. Had a couple of oatmeal stouts and that kind of great conversation you can only have with someone you’ve know your whole life, and both of you long past the point where there is any need to hide anything at all. (I am going to find out what the place was called and post it…its worth a visit if you make to the capital.)

6. Cormac Redux. My takeaway reading was No Country for Old Men, a Cormac McCarthy book I had thought before not quite up to his usual standard but this time through I am finding line after line that seems really good. Haven’t been able to see the film yet and thought I’d do this in the meanwhile. Marquez’ Strange Pilgrims is waiting at home on the bedside table as well as my next reread Cees Nooteboom’s All Soul’s Day which I remember as the consummate modern European novel.

7. Irish weather. And lastly, and I cannot convey quite how much pleasure it gave me to turn on the BBC on the television only to hear the Australian weather report being delivered in a strong Irish dialect by a beautiful woman.

Madrid, Avila, Segovia: May 2007

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The window above was one of a number of rich stained glass windows in an old church in Avila. Below is another window about 25 paces from the other in the same church. There was a gift shop attached where you could also look at the finger bone of the sainted nun of the church and a few other relics. As you left these churches quite often there would be an old woman in black with pictures of her family and her hand out. For some reason these struck me as much more distasteful than your usual beggars.

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That morning we decided to venture outside of Madrid and joined a day tour going to Avila and Segovia. Neither of us being particularly enamoured of tours, we still thought it was an easy way to manage our time that day. (For those considering this, and if we were doing it again, I would suggest planning it yourself; it will be quite a bit cheaper, the transportation is quite easy to arrange and the food has got to be better).

While waiting for the bus to arrive we watched a line of men passing bags of concrete from the main street down a sidestreet to a building being renovated. We saw this sort of third world work quite often in Madrid. My theory is that since the buildings are so close together and the streets so narrow, the only way to move materials is the old way. (A couple of days before we had watched six levels of men passing down planks one to the next as they dismantled some scaffolding.)

What struck us again in Avila was the size of churches in comparison to the populations. They were made so that the whole town or city could be inside at the same time. They also tended to double as part of the the defensive structure, forming part of the walls around the town.

From Avila we headed to Segovia and the aqueducts.

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When you see these, its no wonder that the word classical can be substituted for beautiful.

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This sphinx was in a square. Why do ruined faces and statues missing limbs seem so poignant? For some reason we translate this as common antiquity rather than dwelling on vandalism or erosion. The damage appears to be part of the intrinsic character or the piece rather than something that happened to it.

When we first approached it a young woman was getting her mother to take her picture near it. We had already seen her getting her mother and many others to document her time here. And you had the distinct impression that her purpose was to capture as many versions of her face as possible rather than what her face had been near. It was actually kind of funny; she seemed like a sprite of a sort, a self obsessed spirit.

The last thing we saw in Segovia was this Robin Hood type castle. Inside were all the accoutrements of the knighthood. A prince had ruled on this hilltop and one could easily imagine how this grand structure would have impressed anyone coming around the bend.

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The food you ask? Well the bunch of us were herded into what I thought might be the described feast of rural Spanish cooking. The wine was not very good which must have taken a little work in this country of incredible reds but it was passable, and the bread was warm and rich. The food would have found a good home in a trough. Fatty pig parts in some sort of gravy sauce. And the requisite local band playing for the passed hat. The only fun part was us trying to talk to our companions from Mexico (Chihuahua) (he had a wonderful bandido moustache) in our butchered versions of the two languages.

Iberian Porkland or Spain: Land o’ Ham (May 2007)

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The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot — And whether pigs have wings.
If they did, they’d steer clear of ham loving Spain.

This is the place where it seems as though every second block has a ham emporium. Paradise of Ham, Museum of Ham or Emperor Ham to name a couple of the chains. The picture above was taken in the Museu del Jamon, a place to buy or eat ham. The ceilings are covered with curing hams and I calculated that there might be about a quarter of a million dollars of ham hanging there, and then failed to be able to imagine how many times I would have to multiply this to get Madrid’s ham supply.

There’s quite a range and a connoisseur would have a field day but we had the basic plate with some red wine. Not bad but nothing remarkable but who’s to say the ham to die for wasn’t lurking somewhere in the establishment.

Slicers of ham have their own competitions being judged on consistency of thickness as well as speed. Kind of your ham barista.

This is certainly a land where ham handed might be considered good, to ham it up would be to improve something and to be a ham might be both envied and dangerous to the health.

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Madrid: May 2007:1

That day had started auspiciously. The night before our first meal in Spain was just bloody awful. Even the wine was poor. But this morning was a rainy but warmish day and the place we ducked into was alive with the clatter of early bird workers chattering over coffees, pastries and cigarettes. In contrast to other times of the day, the turnover was fast. You ordered, a minute later there it was, and a minute after that the bill sat in front of you. We each had cafe con leches (brilliant stuff; half sweet espresso and half steamed milk (figured out to make these as soon as we got home)) and glazed croissants filled with ham and cheese. Though the latter doesn’t sound like much, trust me, they were. And like the others, we ate them with fork and knife. It made sense since the glazing made the confection sticky. We noticed that in Spain everything was eaten with utensils.

From there it was a few kilometers through the city, iron grill work everywhere, and sculptural tops to many of the buildings. This was a real Spanish city full of Spaniards. Though there must have been quite a few tourists we really only saw them at the galleries. And the people were little different than people anywhere except that they were absurdly LOUD. I don’t think you would ever need a hearing aid in this country. And it wasn’t that the restaurants and bars were all that loud but on the street. I tell you, Spaniards and cellphones, a really bad idea.

So back at the Prado. It was insanely busy. One large groups of Japanese tourists who seemed to be following us, and many school groups with teachers. This seemed to occur at all the galleries we went to in Madrid. They did more that just build world class collections; they taught the children about the art and this heritage of theirs. We flip through large books or slides on a wall or sad little reproductions on our screens and they can stand two feet away and see the brush strokes and the frames. They can see the range of an artist rather than the one or two representative works.

One thing that you could learn here as nowhere else was how artists started out together and gradually moved towards their own style. Its one of those things you know but don’t really think about much. You see all those early works where Dali paints like Braque and Picasso like Goya. At the beginning they are all like green garden shoots, all the same, and then, some earlier than others, they take on distinctive shapes and like plants, we can only think of their distinctiveness and not of those earlier manifestations.

Oneof the drawbacks of the Prado other than the sheer size of it, is that there is so little modern work. It would have been nice to break up the old with just a bit of the new. There are of course the seeds of modernism everywhere, the hallucinatory light in the El Greco’s, Goya storming the ideological barricades, Bosch’s utter lack of discretion. But the rule is big, and bigger, religious pictures. Its all a bit much, an upscale version of St Agnes where art took second seat to the correctness of the time. Symbolism over reality. And even the Goyas I found ultimately wearisome. Rooms and rooms of them, and you had the sense that were it not for his political power, he would not have quite the stature he does. Don’t get me wrong. The Prado is full of remarkable and awe inspiring paintings; this is the hall of the great ones; this was not to be missed but it is like being trapped at a really great traditional restaurant for a week with a decent range, every meal a big one, a plate buster, but boy could you go for some Thai.

Eating in Prague: May 2007:2

Before we manage to imbibe, we stop by the Museum of Communism. We almost miss it because it is behind the entrance to a casino and beside a McDonalds. And basically shares the same color scheme. Unfortunately, that’s the most interesting part of this (even following the soul draining experience of St Agnes). It’s rather unremarkable considering the material they must have had to draw from.

From there it is on to one of the Pivovarksy outlets. Pivovarsky is a brewer of fine beer and this particular place was a small one with about three tables, a fellow behind a bar with about 6 brews on tap and about 200 different brands of beer for sale. We sample a few beer (you can get them in small glasses). To get to this place, we had walked through our first taste of mundane Prague (not unlike some dowdier commercial areas of Edmonton). On the way back we hop on the metro.

That night we go to the Cantina, a great Mexican restaurant near where we are staying. Have banana and chicken fajitas, refried beans with bits of bacon, Urquell, and a Spanish coffee after. It is hot and busy and the portions are large enough that we leave with enough to make a good breakfast the next day. To supplement this we stop at a grocer and pick up some cherry tomatoes, melons, and strawberries.

Back in the apartment I have a shower with cold water (the only kind in that place) and then watch a Spanish soap dubbed in Czech. In the opening credits, the young studs all canter about on sweaty horses, the sultry women lean and heave against the posts of the corral, and all eyes flash dangerously. In the show itself, the horses have been replaced by pickup trucks; somehow it doesn’t seem the same. Though I’m not sure, it seems like some kind of High Chapperal type show, a Western soap, a matriarchal ranch with youngsters feeling and sowing their oats. The men and women look very good in their pants.