Latei cafe- Amsterdam, Netherlands

The intricate canals of beautiful Amsterdam run through all of the historic neighborhoods and marketplaces, lined by leaning rows of tall narrow houses stacked side by side.  What better way to spend a warm lazy Sunday afternoon than to take a leisurely stroll admiring this unique architecture and discovering the city.  Weekends are an especially good time to explore outdoor markets and bazaars on foot or on bicycle, the preferred mode of transportation in the city.

At the edge of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light district, leading into Chinatown, is Nieuwmarkt which means ‘new market’. A majestic building called De Waag, originally a gate leading into the Medieval city wall and later functioning as a weighing house, stands tall in the center of the square as Nieuwmarkt’s landmark.  On Saturdays Nieuwmarkt is a bustling farmers market, and on Sundays it comes alive as an antiques market where one must rummage through a lot of junk to find those rare treasures.

More than antiques there seems to be a lot of random clothes, boots, jewelry and souvenir stalls at Nieuwmarkt, but it’s still a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends before stopping in to any of the restaurants and cafés in the square.  With such a peaceful and laid back atmosphere, it’s hard to believe that during World War II the square was used by the Nazis as a collection point for Jews who had been rounded up to be sent to concentration camps.

A perfect place to take a break after browsing at Nieuwmarkt is Latei, a quaint and lovely little café where you can sip on cappuccino while continuing your afternoon of flea market shopping.  Virtually everything in the restaurant, except for the servers and customers (even though it’s close to the Red Light district), are for sale.


Stepping into Latei is like going through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ famous Chronicles of Narnia into a magical attic of beautiful knick-knacks.  Delicate vintage chandeliers crowd the ceilings, each with a handwritten price tag dangling from a draping handle, while colorful travel bags, decorative mirrors, dated posters and random toys stud every inch of wall space.

Order a warm croissant with butter and jam to go with freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast while reading the day’s issue of De Telegraaf, or sink your teeth into the Dutch goat cheese sandwich with a side of soup for lunch at the small table by the large window which is optimal for people watching.  On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays they also serve vegetarian Indian food for dinner.

Finish off your meal with a satisfying wedge of warm Dutch apple pie with a shot of espresso or a cup of hot chocolate.  All of this eating and drinking is, of course, part of test driving Latei’s tableware to see if it’s something you want to buy and take home.

Whether upstairs in the little loft or down under the staircase in the semi-private den, every nook and cranny in this small café is filled with fun stuff- second hand furniture that may include creaky wooden chairs and red leather banquettes from a bygone diner, kitschy eyeglasses displayed on cut out green paper faces, and even a shiny silver disco ball scattering little specks of light onto the vintage wallpaper.

Everything has a price tag at Latei, but even if you leave empty handed, a lazy afternoon spent at this wonderful café debating everything from world politics to celebrity gossip with friends over apple pie and coffee is priceless.

Latei

Zeedijk 143
1012 AW Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 6257485

Random trivia:  Did you know that ‘antiques’ are defined as objects that are at least 50 years old? ‘ Collectibles’, on the other hand, are possible antiques of the future and are generally less than 50 years old.

Noordermarkt- Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam boasts 12 daily outdoor markets and 15 markets that are open one or two days of the week, spread across the beautiful city that is built around picturesque canals.  At the Waterlooplein Flea Market one can find second hand clothing, while vintage trinkets and exotic spices can be haggled over at the largest market called Albert Cuypmarkt.  Perhaps the most photographed market in Amsterdam is the Bloemenmarkt, the only floating flower market in the world, housed on a long succession of boats on the Singel canal where one can enjoy tulips of various colors, even a rare black type.

On a wet autumn Saturday morning, I did as the locals did and rode my bicycle, holding an umbrella in one hand and wearing a big rain poncho, to the Noordermarkt organic farmers market in the Jordaan district to secure my week’s supply of greens and bread.

Noordermarkt, which means Northern Market, dates back to 1616 and was originally named Prinsenmarkt after the nearby Prinsengracht canal that runs along the length of the city.  In 1623, a large church called Noorderkerk was built in the town square, and for many years the current market site was used as a graveyard.  Eventually the market was revived and it took on the name of Noordermarkt to commemorate the holy landmark.

During World War II, the Noordermarkt square became the site of the February Strike, the first public protest of non-Jewish citizens against the deportation of Jews by the Nazis.  Now it is a peaceful and beautiful square lined by posh cafés and restaurants, coming alive on Saturdays as the only organic farmers market in the city.

I started filling my wicker basket with plump tomatoes, hefty beets, salad greens and fresh herbs while chatting with the vendors about how best to prepare them.  Despite the rain, the market was bustling with people from all walks of life who were enjoying this weekend tradition as much as I was.  Vibrant colors of ripe fruits and vegetables filled each stall, and alluring aromas of freshly baked breads and cheese samples drew me in from all directions.

An oyster stall at the market was the perfect place to rest my feet and indulge in some tasty bites.  David Hervé La Royale Cabanon oysters had a lovely sweetness that lingered forever on my palate.  A young boy, who looked around 8 years old, threw back the Royale like a seasoned veteran and gave me the thumbs up sign with a big smile.

The oyster vendor recommended that we try the Umami oyster, a plump oyster that shocked me with its initial jolt of saltiness, which then gradually and slowly turned into an intense brininess with a final finish of potent sweetness.  It was a powerful and vigorous oyster, unlike the more understated and elegant flavors of the Royale.

The Dutch are known for their rustic breads, and not surprisingly, there were at least 10 different bread stalls at the Noordermarkt.  Freshly baked muffins, some topped with sweetened fruits and others with herbs and vegetables, rye rusks, whole wheat loaves, braided pretzels, heavy spelt cylinders and flaky croissants colorfully lined each counter, quickly being snatched up by hungry customers.

Large wheels of cheeses, from the famous Gouda to the mellow Edam, soft goat’s cheese to buttery triple cream cheese, were on display for all to see and buy, and every vendor was more than happy to guide me in finding the right ones to satisfy my palate.

After a morning of shopping and sampling, the best way to wind down is to nosh on the best apple pie in the city at Winkel Café, situated right in the Noordermarkt square.  In fact, the organic farmers market got its start in 1987 when the owner of Winkel set up organic vegetable stalls in front of his café, hoping to draw more customers into his store. The cozy café is always crowded, day or night, rain or shine, with locals and tourists. 

Several Hollandse appeltaarts (Dutch apple pie) come up the dumbwaiter from the kitchen onto the main counter, warm and fresh, and served met slagroom (with whipped cream) for those wanting that extra sugar kick. During the rush, Winkel will easily dish out up to 10 pies an hour.

As the rain came pouring down on us at the end of our shopping spree, we darted into Winkel Café and squeezed into the communal table next to 10 other customers who were already licking up their pies. After warming our bodies and our hands on tall glasses of mint tea, we dug our spoons into our apple pies to experience a heavenly dessert like no other.  Thick soft chunks of sweet apples coated with cinnamon, nestled inside an even softer encasing of weightless crust that was delicate yet full of flavor at the same time.  No need for whipped cream on these apple pies, they were just perfect on their own.

The Winkel Cafe

Noordermarkt 43
1015 NA Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 6230223

The Noordermarkt organic farmers market is on the corner of Prinsengracht and Westerstraat, and open on Saturdays from 9.00 am – 3.00 pm.

Granville Island Public Market- Vancouver, BC Canada

One of the best ways to discover the beautiful city of Vancouver is on bicycle.  Renting wheels for the day and riding around Stanley Park is perhaps one of the most popular activities for both locals and tourists.  Downtown Vancouver and its vicinity is big enough to house different neighborhoods each with its own unique characteristic and charm, but small enough to get acquainted with in one day.

Start at the entrance of Stanley Park and bike along the northern waterfront, past the interesting sculptures and installations on Cardero Park, the benches on Coal Harbor Road, Vancouver Convention Center, and eastbound by the railroad tracks into Chinatown.  On through the cobblestone streets of Gastown to get a glimpse of what Vancouver may have been like during the Depression, and due west into downtown to glide past upscale designer stores and hotels on Burrard Street.  Burrard will take you across the water into Kitsilano where you can stop at charming boutiques, cafes and restaurants.  Looping back upward across the Granville bridge will take you into one of the most fascinating locations in the city, Granville Island.

During the industrial boom in the early 20th century, Granville Island served as a key industrial hub for factories that produced machinery and supplies for the forest, mining, construction and shipping sectors.  Many of these factories closed down during the Great Depression, and the island was in shambles until the city embarked on a large scale project to reclaim the land and transform it into a thriving public space.  Save for a concrete factory and a drill bit manufacturer, all of the warehouses are now inhabited by artists, craftsmen, specialty vendors, theaters and the grand Public Market.

The large covered market is alive with the scents and colors of beautiful produce at the peak of their season, and friendly vendors will greet you with samples of their offerings.  Each stall showcases unique homegrown products and fine local delicacies that represent the bounties of Vancouver.  Bright orange mangoes as sweet as sap, fire red heirloom tomatoes, buttery green avocados like you’ve never tasted before, and the occasional unusual finding, like green bracken fiddleheads, all under the same roof.

Once a week Granville Island hosts a farmers market, the most established and oldest of its kind in Vancouver for the last 20 years.  Here you can find additional fresh produce straight from the field, to supplement your shopping for the week.  Whatever you can’t find there can be found back inside the regular market, like rambutan, mangosteen, litchi and longan at the exotic fruit stand.

Interspersed between produce stalls are seafood stores that sell Vancouver specialties.  Throw back some freshly shucked oysters, harvested in the local Canadian waters, or indulge in any one of their salmon delights, like salmon jerky, salmon sausage, salmon pepperoni sticks, smoked salmon slices, or double smoked sockeye salmon strips.

You can find rare herbs and spices all throughout the market, but a good place to stop is the South China Seas Trading Company, specializing in hard-to-find gourmet items from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Fresh Thai chilis, turmeric, ginseng, kalamansi lime and jujubes will make for an interesting culinary expedition, along with the many kitchen gadgets and spices that are neatly packaged on the racks.  Not sure how to use them?  Pick up a cookbook and get inspired for an ethnic feast.

Sniff your way around the corner to ‘A la mode’, where they dish out pies and tarts by the slice or whole.  While waiting for your raspberry rhubarb pie to ring up, peruse the jars of papaya marmalade, red onion relish, cranberry chutney and sweet pear mustard at the stall next door, and envision all of the delicious ways in which to use them.  Take your pie outside with your newspaper, and enjoy your plate of heaven under the bright blue sky while watching boats sail by against the backdrop of beautiful condominiums and bridges.  At times they’ll have live music in the courtyard, or colorful art displays from the local galleries to peak your interest.

If the Vancouver chill sweeps in, run back inside and cozy up to the counter of the Granville Island Tea Company, where large black tins of teas line the walls and relaxed customers sip warm Darjeeling on the barstools by the walkway.  The menu here reads like an encyclopedia of teas, with rare leaves like organic gyokuro and organic orchid Oolong, and enticing flavored brews like Amaretto rooibos.

Across the way is Edible British Columbia, a specialty gourmet store where I spent an hour and a good amount of Canadian dollars on unique sugars and salts.  Any foodie will go berzerk in this beautiful candy store chocked full of gourmet surprises.  Wild smoked scallops, ginger creamed honey, Turkish fig and walnut wine jam, bing cherry vinegar and maple syrup with piment d’Espellette- amazing.  Not to mention their wonderful selection of salts, like the dark forest green Evergreen salt, bright pink BC spot prawn salt, lemon infused sea salt, maroon colored cabernet sauvignon salt, bacon salt and maple leaf salt.

If you didn’t already come to the market with a grocery list and an agenda, walking through the market will certainly give you inspirations for meals to enjoy for the next month.  One such Italian pasta stand will make it easy for you to build the foundations for dinner that evening with offerings like smoked gouda sachetti, yam gnocchi, black pepper pappardelle, herb chicken agnolotti and spinach linguine.  Perhaps throw in some grilled spicy sausages with sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, ricotta cheese and a few sprigs of mint, or pancetta with caramelized onions in a cream sauce.  The excitement of so many potential gourmet meals waiting to happen will overwhelm you here at Granville Island market.

Temptation from patisseries, boulangeries and confectioneries call out from all corners of this Vancouver market, but if you’re like me your nose will lead you straight to this final destination, the Oyama Sausage Company.  Here I spent about half an hour pressing my face up against glass cases of hams, sausages, bacons, terrines and pâtés that are mostly made by hand at this family owned business.  It was from here that the Salt Tasting Room got some of their wonderful charcuterie, like the sublime cured beef tongue that I had with Guinness mustard.

Blood and tongue sausage, British pork pies, garlic headcheese, pheasant terrine, and creamy mountain mushroom and pork pâté.  Smoked pancetta, boudin noir, double smoked bacon, duck prosciutto, Scottish black pudding and Ukrainian ham sausage.  Endless rows and columns of links like red pepper basil bison, lemongrass chicken, Lebanese lamb, chorizo merida and Moroccan merguez.  Oh my, oh my, oh my.

Granville Island is a true urban oasis, surrounded on all sides by the crisp cool waters of Canada, and a vibrant center for arts and culture.  The public market is open 7 days a week, until 7pm every day.  This is the epicenter of every Vancouverite’s daily nutrition, the heart through which rich oxygenated blood pumps forth into the kitchens of restaurants and households.  Easily accessed on foot, by bike, by car or better yet by Aquabus ferries, a visit to Granville Island market will make you wish you were a native Vancouverite.

‘If Granville Island is the king of Vancouver destinations, then the Public Market is the jewel in the Island’s crown’ – Granville Island website.

Mercado Hidalgo- Tijuana, Mexico

The vibrant colors of locally grown peppers, the hefty weight of native root vegetables in your hand, the prickly skin of tropical fruits at its peak, the seductive aromas wafting from busy food stalls that activate your hunger, the energetic sounds of lively exchanges and transactions- these are the very elements that define markets and in turn local cultures.  Whether it’s a visit to your neighborhood farmer’s market in the US, a night market in Turkey or a floating market on the Mekong River, these are the places where you can get a vivid glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the local customs.

Nothing defines our traditions more than the food that we eat, and nothing reflects who we are more clearly than our local markets.  A morning spent weaving through labyrinths of vendors and stalls can transport you into the warmth and comfort of a cocina where families gather for their daily meals.  It is here, in the city’s biggest kitchen, where you can feel the heartbeat of the city’s core from where food trickles through its blood vessels into every household.  In return, bountiful offerings from the land and the sea are brought back to the market every day to continue the endless circle of life.  The market is a place of nourishment and a way of life.

One such market is Mercado Hidalgo, a sprawling indoor-outdoor market in the middle of Tijuana’s urban jungle.  This mercado got its start in the mid 1900′s when a group of Tijuana vendors selling produce out of their car decided to establish a permanent location.  After several moves, it settled into its final and current location at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada and Avenida Independencia in 1984.  In keeping with the true spirit of local markets, Hidalgo is owned by its merchants who run the 80 open air stalls.  3 generations of families have worked here, creating a unique community with its own history and culture.

The market even has its own chapel, honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, where vendors make their final rite of passage upon passing away.  This market is not only a place of tradition, it is a place of family, home and life.

Even as a tourist, it’s easy to feel the rhythm of this unique marketplace where you can feel, taste, touch and smell the essence of a Mexican pueblo.  There is a palpable richness in the air and an abundance of resonant energy- it’s everywhere you look, in the frijoles, the maiz, hierbas and frutas.  A diversity of dried chiles line the racks, reflecting the unique flavors of Mexican cuisine- chile de arbol, pasilla, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, morita, and California.

Skillful men and women shave prickly spines off of nopales, preparing them for the scrumptious dinners that will nourish the mass. It is in the conversations and interactions with these merchants that one can begin to get an understanding of the deep roots of Hidalgo.

Jamaica, tamarindo and chayote from my memorable dinners in Tijuana were displayed in various shapes and sizes.

Carnicerias and queserias piled high with fresh food stood back to back in the tight hallway spaces that never ceased to attract both locals and tourists alike.  Deep fried crispy chicharrones looked familiar to me, and large jars of pickled white strips of tender chicharrones were a novelty, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like the chicharrones prensado, a gigantic mound of densely compressed pig parts so real that it flaunted the occasional tufts of pig hair.

Little girls squealed with delight in the crammed dulcerias where they jumped in joy for caramels and chocolates while older folks took to tequila flavored gummies and frutas cristalizadas with nostalgia.  Dried and candied oranges, pineapples and papayas proved to be cheap and satisfying treats to chew on while perusing through neighboring stores selling ceramics, tableware, cookware and molcajetes.

It’s not just about browsing and being a passive observer- one must be willing to fully plunge into the rhythm of a market with an open mind, for it is only through meaningful intimate interactions with the vendors that you can even begin to comprehend the local way of life.  Perhaps an old lady will give you a few extra oranges with your purchase and ask you to come back again the following day for her lemons.  A street vendor may invite you to their home for dinner after seeing the way you marveled over their tacos de lengua.  That grumpy old butcher, who isn’t grumpy at all once you get to know him, will tell you which stand to go to for the juiciest tomatoes. You never know what can happen at a market, but you’ll always know that whatever does will become a magical experience and a beautiful memory, and be translated into an appreciation for life that you will take back to your culture.

Go to Mercado Hidalgo on your next visit to Baja California and feel the spirit of Tijuana with your own skin, and be sure to wash down those buttery tacos de sesos with a cup of freshly squeezed cane juice to complete the experience.  Repeat as necessary.

Lake Lampy – France

When was the last time that you traveled, and where did you go?  What are your fondest memories from that trip?

When we reflect back on our travels, sometimes the memories that first come to mind or the ones that make us smile the most are not necessarily the ones most representative of that destination.  It’s usually not associated with the historical monuments, the world class museums, the ancient ruins or the 5 star hotels.  If it’s the first time that you are visiting a certain country, it’s almost obligatory to visit the famed sites and typical tourist attractions, but hardly do we ever really remember the details of these visits.  You can tell people that you’ve seen the Egyptian pyramids, London’s Big Ben and New York’s Times Square.  But when somebody asks you how your trip was, you’re more likely to go on and on about the romantic stroll through the park with the handsome boy you met in the train in Italy, how good that chicken skewer from the cheap food stall tasted after taking the wrong bus and getting lost in Ghana, or the charismatic matriarch of the small tapas bar in Madrid who chatted with you over several glasses of wine well after closing time.  Traveling is about those special moments that stay with you forever.  Sometimes, those moments are when we are simply doing nothing at all.

On the last full day of my recent trip to France, we did just that- nothing- and it was one of the highlights of the trip.  The entire trip was amazing, from the 3 Michelin star restaurants in Paris to working in the fields of my cousin’s vineyards in Burgundy, but by the time I got to my final destination Toulouse, my stomach was tired from eating extravagant food every day, and my body was tired from the repetitive cycles of packing and unpacking my suitcase.

We went to the local farmer’s market in the morning and bought fresh fruits and vegetables, charcuterie, bread and cheese.  We packed everything into my friend’s car and headed 80 km southeast toward Carcassonne to Lake Lampy, or Bassin du Lampy, in Aude.  The weather that day was perfect- sunny with some clouds, and a bit cool on the skin with no wind.  There were only a few other families on site that day, and it was quiet and peaceful.

We placed a big tablecloth on the soft green grass by the lake shore and opened up our picnic spread, which attracted a few hungry friends.  These 2 adorable dogs stayed with us for most of the afternoon, until we ran out of food.

We made a simple tuna salad with fresh farmer’s market vegetables, and dressed it with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  The Toulousian saucisson with baguette hit the spot.  Soft cow’s milk cheese, blue cheese and a goat cheese all complemented the chilled dry rosé wine that we brought from home.  Although it wasn’t extravagant by any means, this fresh and simple meal was exactly what I needed at the end of my long trip, and it tasted so good as I laid out on the picnic blanket and took in the breathtaking landscape of Lake Lampy.

We took a leisurely stroll around the perimeter of the lake and enjoyed the slightly damp coolness of the dense forests.  The lake was perfectly still and its surface was as smooth as glass, showing off an impressive reflection of the cloudy sky above. There was nobody else along our path, and it seemed as if this was our secret world, a magical utopia where we were safe from others.

Time seemed to stop as I dug my bare toes into the fresh cool grass and looked at the peaceful scenery.  I laid flat on my back with my canine companion snuggled up to me belly up, and we both reveled in peaceful nothingness as we watched the dense clouds slowly glide by.  I emptied my brain and focused on my breathing, inhaling deeply and slowly to benefit from the fresh clean air and enjoy the pure earthy aroma of my surroundings.  The only sounds aside from chirping birds and rustling trees were of us munching crispy carrots and gulping wine.  This…..this was one of those ‘moments’.

Random trivia:  Did you know that a dog‘s sense of smell is one of the keenest in nature, being able to smell up to 44 times better than man?  The bloodhound is the only animal whose evidence is admissible in an American court.

Mercat de la Boqueria- Barcelona, Spain

A trip to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without at least 1 trip to the fantastic Mercat de la Boqueria, one of the largest and most famous marketplaces in Europe.  Although you will be one of about a thousand tourists at any given time, it’s a must-see place that showcases the local food culture, fresh catches from the sea, and most importantly the live spirit of the hard-working merchants.  Located in La Rambla in the Gothic Quarters half-way between Plaça Catalunya and the beaches (right in front of the Metro stop Liceu), it’s easy to spot the wrought iron entrance to this famous market.  Although the market can be historically dated back as far as the early 12oo’s, it settled into its current location in the early 1800′s.

Just in front of the entrance is a wonderful jamón shop that specializes in the marvelous jamón iberico de bellota, cured ham made with free-range acorn-fed Iberian pigs that have the most flavorful and aromatic fat.  The men behind the counter will skillfully shave as little or as many slices as you want, from a wide range of selections.  You can also buy pre-sliced vacuum sealed packs to take home with you.  I had a few slices of the Joselito Gran Reserva 2006 ham- the intense nutty aroma instantly perfumed my nasal passages as the tender marbled fat melted quickly on my tongue, leaving a faint delectable aftertaste and a smile on my face.  At 169 Euros a kilo, it wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every bite.  There are many more jamón stalls scattered throughout the market, so you can get your fix every few minutes as you slowly browse.

I loved walking through the meat section, slowly checking out the infinite displays of beautifully prepared organ meats from all types of animals.  Most people may quickly pass by these butcher cases in horror or disgust, but I had my nose pressed tightly up against the glass, imagining the tasty dishes that would be created from the fresh tripe, tongue, hoofs and brains.  If only I had enough time to eat everything here…

The seafood stalls also offered a wide variety of local fish and mollusks, even some that I had never seen before.   Everything looked absolutely fresh and beautiful.  They even had about 10 stalls solely dedicated to Bacalao, the Catalan specialty of dried salt cod.  My favorite photo from the Boqueria market is this close up of the razor clams.  Raw, uncensored and strangely erotic, these live navajas looked so delicious.

During my stay in Barcelona, I strategically chose a hotel in the Gothic Quarters that was a short walking distance to the Boqueria market.  I knew that I would be frequenting this market at all times of the day, and my plan worked perfectly.  One of my favorite activities to do was to enjoy the fresh fruit juices at any of the numerous fruit stalls by the entrance to the market.  For only 1 Euro a cup, they offered a wide variety of juices from orange, strawberry, kiwi and mango, to watermelon and pineapple.  I was hooked on the bright magenta colored dragon fruit juice that was light and refreshing.

The wonderful Boqueria market is closed on Sundays, but open from 8am on all other days.  The amazing tapas bars, freshly squeezed fruit juices and hand-carved slices of Jamón Iberico de Bellota are waiting for you.  Come to Mercat de la Boqueria, the heart of Barcelona, and experience how this city center pumps energy and life into the souls of all who fall under its spell.

Mercat de St. Josep de la Boqueria

Random trivia: According to legend, the dragon fruit was created thousands of years ago by fire-breathing dragons.  After the dragon was slayed, the collected fruit would be presented to the Emperor as a treasure and proof of victory.

Tapas, tapas, tapas! – Barcelona, Spain

When one thinks of Spain, the first thing that comes to mind is probably ‘tapas’. A visit to Spain without going to a tapas bar is an incomplete and boring experience.  I love dropping in to tapas bars to grab a quick and tasty bite to eat with a cup of cava, and to meet interesting locals who can teach me more about the wonderful Spanish culture.  Where did this wonderful concept come from?  One theory states that it started when bar owners used to place a slice of bread or ham over glasses of sherry to deter flies.  ‘Tapas’ means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’ in Spanish, so this certainly makes sense.  Another legend states that while King Alfonso X was sick, he was only able to eat small bites of food with his wine.  After he recovered, he ordered all taverns to offer small dishes to accompany alcoholic beverages.  Whatever the case, it’s one of my favorite ways to savor simple and delicious local food.  During my short trip to Spain, I tried to visit as many tapas bars as my schedule would allow.

The Mercat de La Boqueria, the large covered market near the Gothic Barrier in Barcelona, is perhaps one of the most famous markets in all of Europe.  Infinite numbers of food stalls offer fresh seafood, meat and produce.  There are also many charcuterie stalls that specialize in sausages and hams, namely the famous Jamón Iberico de Bellota that is to die for.  I started my tapas adventure here in the Boqueria market, where they have about 20 bars.

Perhaps the most famous of the Boqueria tapas bars is Bar Pinotxo, ideally situated at the entrance of the Boqueria market.  Legendary server Juanito Bayen, sporting a bright green vest with a green bowtie, works with a smile and a wink to serve a never-ending crowd of locals and tourists who wait patiently for a bar stool to open up.  This place is always crowded, and although there are tables to the side of the food stall, it’s worth waiting for a seat at the bar.  That way you can get an up close look at the busy happenings in the small kitchen, and a chance to have a nice chat with Juanito.

We had deep fried bacalao, which is a must-try in Spain.  These dried salt cod fillets are superbly delicate and tender once re-hydrated, and have the most wonderful salty flavor.  The ones at Pinotxo had a nice light crunchy exterior that gave way to a generous chunk of steaming hot moist cod.

My favorite dish here was a plate of tripe stew that Juanito quickly brought over for me after he saw me drooling over my neighbor’s plate.  Absent in any gameyness whatsoever, this stew was rich in flavor and intensity.  A few dollops on torn baguette pieces, washed down with a few gulps of cava,  and I was transported to a different world.

By the time we ate at Pinotxo at around 3pm, most of the food was gone.  The only last item available was this dish that resembled a hamburger patty.  Although it was good, it wasn’t my idea of eating tapas in the Boqueria market.  I learned a valuable lesson at this point- go to Pinotxo early before the food runs out.  They’re actually quite famous for their breakfasts too.

Just around the corner from Bar Pinotxo is Kiosko Universal that specializes in fresh seafood.  All of the fresh selections of the day can be prepared a la plancha or grilled with olive oil.  I was really excited to try this tapas stall, as I heard that they served great razor clams, or navajas.  I love the oblong succulent flesh of razor clams, and I haven’t been able to find a place in Los Angeles that serves them.  Kiosko Universal is much larger than Bar Pinotxo, and has a bar counter that goes all the way 360 degrees around the central kitchen, in addition to extra bar table seating to the side.  We started with a plate of Salteado de Setas, grilled wild mushrooms. The great assortment of fungi was dressed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and sea salt.

I was very excited to finally be reunited with razor clams, but the dish was a bit of a disappointment.  It had the same flavoring and garnishing as the mushrooms, and was even a tad bit undercooked.  I longed for the delicious razor clams at Mary’s Fish Camp in New York City.

The mussels weren’t that great either. Again, same flavor, same garnish, same degree of being undercooked.  We were ready to move on to the next stall.

El Quim de la Boqueria is another tiny tapas bar, farther way from the market entrance, deep into the central area of the market where the seafood vendors are.  I ordered a plate of huevos fritos con chipirones en su tinta, fried eggs with baby squid and squid ink.  Wow, what an amazing dish.  The tender and delicate baby squid, softly enveloped in a veil of runny egg yolk and black ink with just the right amount of saltiness, was divine.  This was perhaps the most memorable and delicious plate that I had in Barcelona.

I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me at El Quim.  He was born and raised in Barcelona, and swore by the tapas at El Quim, stating they were the best in the city.  By the way the baby squid dish tasted, I didn’t doubt his claim.  He told me proudly that he’s been coming here for as long as he could remember, at least once a week.  I asked him where else he could recommend for me, and he did not hesitate to give me the directions to Taktika Berri.

The gentleman told me that the waiting list for table reservations is about 2 months long, but the place to go isn’t there anyway- it’s at the pintxos bar up front.  Similar in concept to tapas, pintxos are more representative of Basque cuisine and are small bite-sized morsels held together with toothpicks.  Pintxos, or pinchos, means ‘spike’ in Spanish, precisely because of the way these delicate eats are speared with a toothpick or a skewer. Taktika Berri specializes in montaditos, which are pintxos featuring ‘mounted’ heaps of meat, seafood and vegetables on a slice of bread, held together by a toothpick.

As soon as I walked through the glass double doors, I was glad that I trusted that gentleman’s advice.  This place was packed with locals only, and there was not a single tourist in sight.  This was the real deal, and I knew I was in for some authentic Basque delights.  We squeezed our way to the bar and managed to grab a couple of seats.  The system here is such that you must first ask for a plate, which lets them know that you’re ready to start eating.  Then the pintxos commander behind the bar will come around with a plate of one type of montadito at a time, setting it on your plate if it’s something you want to eat.  This process happens only once every 10 minutes or so, reflecting the cultural notion behind pintxos that it’s an adjunct to drinks and long conversation, and not necessarily the main act.

We tried some lovely pintxos here, including deep fried ham croquettes and a savory bacalao cake with potatoes and eggs.  Montaditos included fresh anchovies with diced peppers, chorizo wrapped in bacon, fried sausage, and smoked salmon.  All were simple but flavorful and simply satisfying to the palate and stomach.  I loved the lively atmosphere here, and by being a part of this wonderful experience, I could really see how this style of eating and drinking is such a crucial part of socializing in Spain.  I met a lot of interesting people in the hour that I was at Taktika Berri, including an architect and a science professor at the local university.

At the end of the meal, you get charged for the number of pintxos that you ate, made apparent by the number of toothpicks on your plate.  A simple and smart system.  Ahhh, tapas.  What a joyful way of experiencing food and life!

Bar Pinotxo- Stall 466, Mercat de la Boqueria

Kiosko Universal- Stall 691, Mercat de la Boqueria

El Quim de la Boqueria- Stall 584, Mercat de la Boqueria

Taktika Berri- Carrer Valencia, 169, Barcelona, 08011.  Tel: 934-534-759

Random trivia: Did you know that the Norwegians were exporting salted fish like bacalao as early as 875 AD?

Cooking with friends – Lyon, France

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View across the Saône river from the market

Continuing on with my food adventures in Lyon, France…

On Saturday morning we decided to go shopping at the farmers market along the Saône river in vieux Lyon.  My friend Guillaume offered to cook lunch for us, and we were so excited to get a homecooked meal full of fresh seasonal vegetables after our heavy meat-centric dinner at Café des Fédérations the night before.  It was a beautiful sunny hot day with clear blue skies, and the walk along the river was breathtaking.  The outdoor market was teeming with energy and the vibrant bright colors of vegetables and flowers were bursting with happiness.  Here are some photos from the vieux Lyon Saturday farmers market:

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We were lucky enough to get fresh morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season.  I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh morel mushrooms, so this was a new experience for me.  I’m used to the dried store-bought version.  These fresh morels were soft and spongy, light and airy, earthy and pungent, and just simply delightful.  Guillaume also bought fresh ris d’agneau, or lamb sweetbreads which I was extremely excited about.

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Fresh morel mushrooms

Guillaume’s kitchen is tiny.  There’s really only enough room for 1 person.  It’s barely even tall enough for him to be able to stand fully erect.  I offered to help, but there was only 1 1/2 cutting boards (the 1/2 board was the size of a passport) and a few pairing knives.  How can this tiny kitchen with hardly any fancy gadgets whip out this fancy meal that Guillaume was describing to me?  Frankly, I was a little worried.  However, as soon as I saw him clean the sweetbreads, prepare the morels, sauté the fingerling potatoes in butter, cut the artichokes down to the heart, and throw the peas in boiling water all within a 10 minute period, I knew I could sit back and relax.  It’s not about the kitchen, or the equipment, or the fancy gadgets, or the space.  It’s about the chef, his creativity and his passion.

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Cleaned morels and lamb sweetbreads waiting to be cooked

The deep earthy aroma of morels filled the apartment as he sautéed them with butter.  At the same time, he individually and carefully cooked each vegetable before putting them all together in the pot.  He knew exactly how each vegetable had to be prepared to enhance their natural sweetness and character, and he was not cutting any corners.

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Chef Guillaume multi-tasking in his small kitchen

Before we knew it, a beautiful pot of asparagus, artichokes, peas, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and garlic had been assembled on the tiny stovetop.  Meanwhile, he was finishing his morel sauce with cream and white wine from my cousin’s winery that I brought from Burgundy, and cooking it with the sweetbreads in the oven.

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Beautiful farmers market vegetable pot

The rest of the crew set the table and decanted a bottle of my cousin’s red wine, Simon Bize et Fils Aux Vergelesses.  We all proceeded to crowd around the small kitchen to watch the chef in action, all the while drooling and wagging our tails.

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Table is set, and wine is decanted

This ended up being one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire Europe trip.  There is just something so special about being invited into someone’s home and having a homecooked meal.  Shopping together at the market and seeing all of the fresh seasonal ingredients being transformed in front of my eyes in the kitchen also heightens the experience.   Everything was delicious, especially the lamb sweetbreads with morel mushrooms.

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Delicious market vegetable pot

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Succulent ris d'agneau with morel cream sauce

Of course we had the obligatory post-dinner cheese plate, again all selected by Guillaume at the cheese stand at the farmers market.  It included goat cheese with ashes and pepper, fresh goat cheese from goat’s milk that had just been milked the day before, and a Comté from the North Alps.

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After dinner farmers market cheese plate

Guillaume busted out his espuma gun for fresh whipped cream to complement the juicy strawberries.

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Succulent market strawberries

What a perfect weekend so far in Lyon, I thought, as I drifted away in a post-prandial snooze on the couch…

Random trivia:  Did you know that morel mushrooms, otherwise known as brain mushrooms, honeycomb mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, are the official state mushrooms of Minnesota?

Les Halles – Lyon, France

Lyon

Lyon

The next stop after Burgundy on my recent Europe trip was Lyon, known as the French capital of gastronomy.  Our culinary partner-in-crime Gregory gave us a quick introductory tour of Lyon, through the cobblestone streets of old town vieux Lyon and across the bridges over the Rhône and Saône rivers.  With the beautiful Notre Dame de Fourvière standing magestically above the mountains, and cafes and bouchons lining the riverside, Lyon was quite a sight to take in.

IMG_6970All that walking got us hungry- when can we start eating some food?  After all, we were in Lyon.  With only 2 hours to go until our dinner reservations, we couldn’t help but indulge in some quick but good eats.  Gregory knew just the place to satiate our needs, and took us straight to the marketplace Les Halles.

Les Halles is an amazing place stocked full of the best foods in the world.  Row after row of food stalls, seafood bars and restaurants throw temptation in your face from all angles.  The vegetables stalls have the freshest vegetables bursting with flavor and juice, and the charcuterie stalls with infinite selections of hanging saucissons and hams.  The fromageries boasted an assortment of cheeses that I’ve never encountered before in my life, and a macaroon shop offered about 30 different flavors (even white truffle, olive oil and foie gras flavors! ).  There was a pastry shop dedicated solely to pralines, and about 4 different oyster bars. In fact, this Les Halles in Lyon is named after famed French chef Paul Bocuse.  I wish we had a marketplace like this in Los Angeles.  If such a place existed, I would probably be there every day.

Seafood stall

Seafood stall

Macaroon stall

Macaroon stall

Praline store

Praline store

Patisserie

Patisserie

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

Fromagerie

Fromagerie

Charcuterie

Charcuterie

We decided to eat some oysters, and sat down at a table by the oyster bar at the Ecailler Cellerier.  Gregory had just been there earlier that day for oysters, so the patron recognized him right away.  The kind patron gave us a warm welcome, and joined us for some conversation and a white wine toast.

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler Cellerier

We tried 4 types of oysters: Marennes Fine de Claire, Isigny de Normandie, Speciales Gillardeau Number 3 and Speciales Gillardeau Number 4.  My favorite was the Gillardeau Number 3, a 3rd grade oyster harboured in the Marennes region of France from the legendary family-run oyster farm Gillardeau.  They were plump, rich, luxurious and divine, and truly some of the best oysters that I’ve ever tasted in my life.  So this is the famous Gillardeau oyster…now I see what all the fuss is about!  Some claim that these oysters are the best in the world, and many 3 Michelin star restaurants in France serve them.

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Master oyster shucker

Master oyster shucker

Plate of oysters....so yummy

The most delicious and precious plate of oysters

Within the first 2 hours of arriving in Lyon, we were already at Les Halles having some of the best oysters in the world.  Les Halles here in Lyon is not a place to be missed.

Ah, Lyon, I love you already.  More exciting gastronomic adventures to come!

Random trivia:  Did you know that a baby oyster (larvae) is called a ‘spat’?

Paris, je t’aime!

Paris, wonderful city of lights, my favorite city in the whole world.  Some memorable photos from my recent trip….

Les Deux Magots

Coffee break at Les Deux Magots

Place de Concorde from the Jardin de Tuileries

Place de Concorde from the Jardin de Tuileries

White asparague at the Bastille farmer's market

White asparagus at the Bastille farmer's market

Notre Dame on a cloudy day

Notre Dame on a cloudy day

Seine river

Seine river

Notre Dame at dusk

Notre Dame at dusk

Escargots at Ma Bourgogne

Escargots at Ma Bourgogne

Place de Vosges

Place de Vosges

Bateau on the Seine river

Bateau on the Seine river

Evening stroll along the Seine river

Evening stroll along the Seine river

Deserted streets of Paris at 3am

Deserted streets of Paris at 3am

Clock at Musée d'Orsay

Clock at Musée d'Orsay

At the foot of the Tour Eiffel at 2am

At the foot of the Tour Eiffel at 2am

Oh Paris, my beautiful city, my city of love, you fill me with joy and happiness.  Je t’aime!!!

xoxo