(Sorry that there are no photos. Internet is to weak to handle them. Will post later.)
Someone asked us what we have been eating. Having now sampled the cuisine of six countries, I am sitting down to give you a sense of what we have been eating. In my diary, I have kept a list of our favorite foods and food “experiences” along the way. Here you go:
Cruise ship: I think Joe has filled you in about our sumptuous and frequent meals on the cruise. We started our fantastic eating experiences while crossing the Atlantic!
Spain: Our favorite foods and drinks in Spain were: (1) the Valencia oranges (Supposedly it was “late in the season” and “they are not as sweet now,” but that was hard to believe); (2) espresso coffee, any time of the day (with a great machine in our apartment, thanks to Juan and Vincen); (3) paella (more on that in a moment); (4) tapas, a terms which seems to be used for a wide range of foods, usually on a “small plate”; and (5) the great, inexpensive wine, especially red wine, which spoiled us for the rest of the trip, given the cheap price (a good bottle for 4 Euros!). Our favorite experiences were: (1) the wonderful rabbit and snail paella at a very special restaurant recommended by Juan (El Raco de la Paella); (2) Joe’s birthday dinner at Ricard Camarana (written up in a previous blog post) in Valencia; and (3) a mid-day meal of small plates at La Tasquita de Enfrente in Madrid. Both of the wonderful restaurants were recommended by Michelin, which did not let us down. Our only problem with restaurant eating in Spain was timing. We just couldn’t stay up late enough usually to eat out at night. We found that it was better to eat out for the mid-day meal, which would be from 2:30 to 4:00! In summary, our favorite cuisine of the trip was Spanish, a big surprise since we weren’t so familiar with it.
France: Of course, French cuisine was great, and probably needs no description. The café au lait, bread, and pastries were my favorites. And of course, there’s the wine and cheese that are as good any other place in the world. Our favorite food experiences were: (1) waking up each day at our friend Mireille’s house to warm croissants and a warm baguette, which she had walked out to get for us, and a lunch of cheese and beet salad, eaten right in her front room where we heard the bells of Notre Dame ringing; (2) an amazing dinner of fresh langoustines (Brittany lobsters) prepared by our sister-in-law, Martine, and her partner Bernard. (The French restaurants we sampled were nowhere as good as this “home cooking.”); and (3) two scoops of ice cream (pistachio and vanilla) on the Champs Elysee, the best of my life. (I guess the setting helped.)
Germany: We were only in Germany briefly, and could not really sample the cuisine in any kind of comprehensive way, but we loved the beer, brown bread, and sausage. Our favorite experience was dinner with our friends John and Grace at the Berlin restaurant, Rotisserie Weingraun, where we sampled wild meats, lamb, and pork that were “home raised gently.”
Poland: Again, we were just there briefly, but we loved the potato pancakes and wild boar. (Are you drooling yet?)
Belarus: Believe it or not, although we did not get off the train in Belarus, we had one of our best meals there. We had had some challenges finding our train and getting on for the overnight trip from Warsaw to Moscow, and we had not paid attention to the fact that we might need food. Once we boarded the train, we were distressed to discover that there was no dining car, and that everyone else had their own food. What to do? The problem was solved when we got to the border and a troupe of Belarussian ladies boarded the train bearing food of a variety of kinds. We purchased the most delicious whole roasted chicken, warm potatoes, several large pickles, bread and yogurt (the latter two items constituting our breakfast the next morning).
Russia: The term borscht seems to apply to a variety of kinds of soup, not just beet soup, although this one did have some beets and more potatoes and other vegetables, as well as beef. Delicious! Other good foods in Russia are mashed potatoes (seriously, they really do make good ones from fresh potatoes) and dried fish of a variety of types. Most of our meals were served on the Trans-Siberian train (and excellent). In general, vodka seems to be the drink of choice everywhere, and it’s cheap. I have never been a fan of vodka, but I have to admit it’s pretty good over there, especially if accompanied by good company and a round of toasts (which it always was). My best Russian food experience was eating a bowl of borscht, purchased at a sidewalk stand in Moscow, on the way to the Tretyakov Gallery. The weather was fine, and music was playing nearby, as I sat at an outdoor table.
Mongolia: Because they do not grow food crops, Mongolian cuisine is based on dairy products and meat. They have a wide range of dairy products from cows, goats, sheep, camels, horses (Yes, they love fermented horse milk), and yaks. We tasted some of these, which have a sort of exotic taste that is interesting but not “delicious” to me (except the yogurt, which has been wonderful throughout all the trip). In Mongolia we had good barbecue of various meats, and wonderful soup. The best two experiences were (1) sharing morning tea (it’s salty) and cheese with a Mongolian family, and (2) being out on the steppes with our tour group having a Mongolian barbecue while being serenaded by local people on traditional instruments.
China: It is just impossible to sample and describe the variety of Chinese cuisine. This vast country has spawned so many wonderful types of food, and we (having been here just 11 days so far) have only scraped the tip of the iceberg. This is actually not a good metaphor, since most of the best food we’ve sampled has been very hot! The places we have been so far have many spicy dishes, especially in Xian, which was the terminus for the Silk Road and where spices were imported into China. Joe got a picture of half a plate of peppers of various types that we extracted from our lunch one day; we just couldn’t take the spicy taste that everyone else gobbled up happily. The northern part of China where we have been so far is primarily a wheat-growing area. This means that noodles and dumplings are the specialties. Noodles are eaten by local people morning, noon, and night. I saw fresh noodles being made when the cook shaved slices of dough into boiling broth. The dumplings are small steamed dough with fillings (similar to ravioli and what we call “dim sum” at home, but I haven’t heard that term used here). The ones we have sampled have all been savory. They have a variety of fillings, of both meat and vegetables; my favorite has been pork. There are also larger steamed buns, more like rolls, that may or may not have a filling like a sweet bean paste. Another treat is the tea, which is delicious with many local varieties that are touted as having specific medicinal qualities. My favorites so far are jasmine and oolong. The best food experience for me (and I expect to have more) was having a bowl of fresh noodles cooked in a delicious spicy broth in a tiny local restaurant (four chairs) in Pingyao. It cost 10 yuan ($1.50) and was so tasty.
I will end this “food blog” with a quote from a book Joe is reading (Chinese Philosophy on Life. ) In it, the author describes the importance of mealtime in Chinese culture.
When dining out in China at restaurants where local people go, it becomes clear immediately that the dishes placed on the table are not specifically for those who have ordered them, but are to be shared. On a fresh dish being served, the host or hostess picks out the choicest morsels for their guests, who reciprocate. A dinner generally begins with a warm-up period, when small talk, courtesies, and toasts are exchanged. Things then liven up. Table conversation becomes animated, with much joking and laughing. The whole scene takes on a more familial ambience until a moment of supreme harmony is reached when discord born of class difference, personal prejudice, or the generation gap momentarily dissolves, and a feeling of shared warmth prevails. All present feel cheered and secure within the ethos of harmony.
While he was discussing China, I think his comments could apply to a lot of the places we have visited going around the world. Food is truly the “tie that binds”