Barcelona – City of Chocolate

by Amy Knauff

This is probably going to sound crazy (or obnoxious), but I’m currently living in a Central American country with a tropical climate and… I miss autumn! I can just picture readers out there glaring mental daggers at me, or getting ready to submit this post to whitewhine.com. Don’t get me wrong, having beach weather almost year-round is pretty awesome. But autumn has been my favorite season my whole life, so when I see friends posting pictures on Facebook of gorgeous red-gold-orange-yellow trees, sidewalks filled with satisfyingly crunchy leaves, and trips with their kids to pumpkin patches or apple orchards, I can’t help getting a little nostalgic for my old East Coast autumns.

And the food! Don’t get me started on the food I’m missing… those hearty comfort foods that can only be truly enjoyed and appreciated when it’s chilly outside. The ham stews and pumpkin pies of my childhood. And from my years living in Italy, roasted chestnuts, pasta with funghi porcini, truffles. And one of my favorite cool-weather, warm-you-up treats? Hot chocolate!

Actually, I find chocolate in general much more satisfying when in cool weather. As I sit here in the tropics sweating and being bitten by mosquitos, I don’t really crave melty, messy, super-sweet chocolate (try a refreshing fresh-squeezed lemonade instead). But oh, when it’s gray and bitter outside, nothing gets those endorphins moving like a gorgeous dark chocolate truffle.

My European friends tell me that the cool weather has finally hit there. It’s nearly November, summer is well and done by now, and it’s time to really embrace the fall and everything that comes with it. If you’re visiting Barcelona around this time, I cannot emphasize enough that you should not miss all the delicious chocolatey treats you’ll find around the city.

I always knew that chocolate con churros was famous in Barcelona — and on my first visit I made sure to try the thick, gooey hot chocolate accompanied by fried churros sprinkled in sugar. It was the perfect rainy December afternoon merinda. (It’s also a favorite post-discoteca snack in the wee hours of the morning among young Spaniards, much like a trip to a 24-hour diner in the US, or a cappuccino and freshly baked cornetto in Italy.)

But it wasn’t until I took Context Travel’s “City of Chocolate” tour last time I was there (oh god! a whole tour about CHOCOLATE!) that I realized the importance of chocolate to Barcelona. When thinking about chocolate in Europe, Switzerland or Belgium probably pops into your mind: but it turns out that Spain was actually the first place that chocolate arrived in the Old World, when Columbus brought back unprocessed cacao beans with him into the port of Barcelona. In fact, after taking the chocolate tour, I suddenly started seeing chocolate shops and granjas (cafés that specialize in chocolate and sweets) all over the place when I hadn’t even noticed them before.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is led by Esther, a native Catalana with perfect English, who met us near the port and led us around the city for about 3 hours, ending in the Eixample neighborhood just north of the Old City. Context keeps their tours small (my group only had 5 people), which means you can get to know each other and the guide during the tour, easily ask questions, and the guide can personalize the tour a bit based on what the group seems to be interested in.

During the 3 hours Esther mixed a good amount of chocolate history and culture in Barcelona with interesting tidbits about the city, commenting on things as we walked, both chocolate-related and non-. I learned odds and ends that I wouldn’t have from a guidebook, like:

-the Columbus statue in the port is meant to be pointing to the New World, but it’s actually pointing in the wrong direction

-the bronze plaques you see on the ground in front of some stores signify that it’s an historic food shop

-thick, bitter hot chocolate drinks were used to keep sailors energetic, full, and warm during long trips (without weighing the ships down with too much food)

-the street performers on Las Ramblas actually have to audition and get permits to perform there

But of course the most fun part of the tour is the tasting. Esther brought us to Granja Dulcinea, one of the oldest granjas in the city, where we sat down and tried hot chocolate with melindros (a ladyfinger-like cookie) as well as a bottled cold chocolate drink called Cacaolat (which kind of looks like a Yoo-Hoo… remember those?).

We stopped in three chocolate shops later on in the tour — first at one of the oldest ones of the city (with one of those historic plaques in front), Fargas, where we saw a piece of old-fashioned chocolate-processing machinery and lots of different kinds of classic chocolate bonbons. Esther picked out several different flavors for each of us to taste-test as we walked along to our next tour stop. The second tasting stop was at a sweets store/café on Las Ramblas, filled with interesting, trendier chocolate designs and combinations, where we tried chocolate-covered mint leaves and bright red chocolate lips. Our final stop at the end of the tour was a modern, elegant shop filled with gorgeous, perfectly arranged chocolate bonbons of all different types, both classic flavors and unusual ones (ginger, Caribbean lime, strawberry-champagne, etc). Everybody on my tour was so chocolated-out by then that we all opted to take our chocolates away to have later, once we’d come down from the sugar high.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is a must-do for chocolate lovers like me. (By the way, there’s also a chocolate museum in Barcelona — not included on the tour — that looks like it’d be worth a visit: www.museuxocolata.cat) If you’re not a chocolate fanatic, Context Travel offers plenty of other tours you can choose from — on food, art, architecture, history, and even tours geared towards kids — in Barcelona and in 15 other European cities, 4 US cities, and 2 Asian cities. Visit their website www.contexttravel.com for details.

Rakı a.k.a. “The Lion’s Milk” & Meze

by Ezgi Baskaya Uguzalp

The national Turkish alcoholic beverage, rakı (pronounced “rakoo”), is traditionally referred to as “the lion’s milk”. The reference is both to the milky white color that rakı turns into when diluted down by water, as is the custom, as well as to the insidious potential that it has of intoxication, with an alcohol ratio of 45%.

How it’s made: Raisins and fresh grapes are distilled into “suma”, an alcoholic base, which is then distilled a second time with the addition of anise seeds, in giant copper distillers with a volume of no less than five thousand liters. The result is a crystal clear liquid with a unique taste and a strong punch for the reckless.

How it’s served: Rakı is always served in small cylindrical glasses, and almost always watered down. First the glass is filled up to a third if you want a double or a “duble”; up to one sixth if you want a single or a “tek”; and only then the cold water is added. The addition of water turns the rakı into a cloudy, milky color. Most people will have an ice cube or two in their rakı to keep it cold; however since the melting ice keeps altering the concentration level of your drink expect slight changes in the taste. You are always served ample water with your rakı and you’re supposed to have a separate glass of cold water to wash it down after every sip. You might order in single servings but the tradition is to share a bottle. Rakı is nowadays produced in one liter, 70cc and 50cc bottles.

Drinking it: Mistaking rakı for just another traditional alcoholic beverage would be blasphemy. Rakı is the guilty pleasure of a Muslim culture and yet another contradiction welcoming the adventurous travelers to where the east meets the west. The closest comparison would be the tea rituals of the Far East. Even though you might walk into any pub in Istanbul to have a taste of rakı that is not the Turkish way and is only advised for the wary, in order to dodge the price of a full course meal. Even then please have at least some feta cheese with your rakı to save some face.

Preferably, you should enjoy your rakı at a “meyhane”, a traditional Turkish restaurant specialized in serving rakı and the food required to complete your pleasure. Meyhanes might also have some live Turkish music; with the crowd joining in as rakı starts running down their veins. A full course meal at a meyhane will start with your selection of cold starters or “mezes”, and it is the custom for your waiter to bring a giant tray of samplers, pretty much like a 3D menu, for you to look and make your mind up. This is followed by hot starters which might include delicacies like shrimp cooked in butter. Then comes the main course which is generally some sort of fish depending on the season. This is followed by desert, fruit and your evening reaches its peak with a cup of Turkish coffee at the end. The whole meal takes a few hours, and is not to be rushed. This is a ceremony after all and it is not about eating your fill. As you wash down every bite with a bitter sweet sip of rakı followed by a sip of cold water you will feel ecstasy and the orient engulfing you, and the next morning you are guaranteed to feel thankful for all the customary hydration.

Prices: A liter of rakı will cost around 60-70TL or 25-35 Euros at a supermarket in Istanbul. The oldest and the most popular brand is “Yeni Rakı” which ironically translates as “the New Rakı”. However “Tekirdağ”, named after the city that is famous for its rak? production, is a little easier on the palate and a bit more expensive. They might charge you anywhere between 10-20TL (4-8 Euros) at a pub for a “double” rakı. A full course meal at a “meyhane” might cost anywhere between 50TL and 150TL (25-75 Euros) per person depending on the caliber of the restaurant.

About the author:  Ezgi was born and raised in Bolu and grew up in a boarding school in Istanbul where she met her future husband, Erkan. She studied mathematics in Istanbul and became a data analyst at a consultancy company.

To make up for their years in boarding school, Ezgi and Erkan started their serious travelling during their honeymoon with Thailand as their first destination. In the following years they have explored Italy and Spain extensively (using cross-pollinate!), to satiate their lust for great Pizza and their love of classical art.

Where to stay and eat in Milan

by Steven Brenner

Linda and I recently spent a few days in Milan to see the Dalai Lama.  We wanted to stay somewhere inexpensive and cute and not too far from the train station.  We found a great little apartment near Porta Garibaldi station and booked it on-line.  Although we don’t have any immediate plans to expand Cross-Pollinate to Milan, we’re often asked if we have any recommendations – and this place was definitely recommendable.

For about 120 euro a night you get a private apartment with air-conditioning, a nice bathroom, wifi, TV, and a kitchen.  The owner, Alessandra, bakes little cakes for tea time and has all the breakfast stuff you would need – bread to toast, milk, sugar, and an espresso machine.  From there, you can jump on the subway at Moscova to get anywhere in the city, or walk down the fashionable Corso Garibaldi, to the Duomo in about 20 minutes.

Porta Garibaldi B&B – viale Pasubio 8 – 20154 Milano tel: 02-29061419 cell: 335-8044030 bb@portagaribaldi.it

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Food is good in Milan, but not cheap.  Our close friend, who’s originally Milanese, suggested we go to a restaurant called Al Pont de Ferr in his old stomping ground of the Navigli, the canal area of Milan, lined with hip places to eat and drink.

Normally, I really hate fancy food – I find the no frills, humble version to much more satisfying than a pretentious attempt at being creative with a dish that really doesn’t need to be improved.  But these guys at Pont de Ferr are seriously creative.  They do stuff I’ve never seen or tasted before.  Stuff that frankly would never even occur to me.

This is their take on an eggplant parmigiana:

an appetizer of red onion and goat cheese:

the dessert menu, which I like to translate as, “we’re not playing around with this dessert!”:

Al Pont de Ferr – Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 55 – Naviglio Grande, Milano tel: 02-89406277

How to make a perfect cappuccino at home.

Often, when people come to stay at our house, and we make them a morning cappuccino, they wonder what our secret is.  It’s not a fancy machine – it’s just a low-tech Bialetti moka and a simple stove-top milk frother.  Not only do we prefer the cappuccino we make at home to the local bar, but we travel with it too!

Drinking Guide to Lisbon – from Vinho to Café Cheio

by Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho

Strolling around Lisbon you will find some little old fashioned kiosks (at Praça do Camões, Praça das Flores and Jardim do Príncipe Real amongst others), an ideal place to stop for refreshments.  These recently restored “quiosques” serve both sweet and savoury pastries, as well as coffee and quintessentially Portuguese cordial drinks such as “capilé” (extract of fern and caramel) and  “groselha” (red current).

There are two main brands of “cerveja” (beer) in Portugal – Sagres and Super Bock – and they range from a strong pale lager to dark beer and from stout to alcohol free. An “imperial” or “cerveja á pressão” is draft beer which gets served in a standard 300ml glass or as a “caneca” for 500ml; whilst “garrafa” is bottled beer.

As well as its music, “caipirinha” the national drink of Brazil has been adopted as one of Portugal favourites and it’s simply delicious in the summertime as it’s made with crushed ice, sugar cane rum and lime. But it is also super alcoholic, so be warned and drink more than one at your peril!

“Ginjinha”, a liqueur made by infusing sour cherry berries with “aguardente” (Portuguese fire water) and sugar, is served as a shot with a single cherry in the bottom of the cup. It’s a typical drink of Lisbon and “A Ginjinha do Rossio” – a tiny bar in the Rossio district in Lisbon –  is the city’s most famous “ginjinha” establishment. Locals and tourists alike queue up to sip this sweet, cheap and sticky concoction.  Older Portuguese men drink their shot in one gulp, and then suck on the cherry for awhile, before spitting the pit into the street!

WINE CULTURE IN PORTUGAL

Portugal is a wine drinking country, so “vinho” accompanies most meals. Table wines are generally of a good quality, reasonably priced and available as “tinto” (red);  “branco” (white); “rosé” ; “verde” (green); and “espumante” (semi-sparkling).

Celebrated as the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, the Douro (in the north of Portugal) is essentially famed for producing “Port” – a rich fortified wine unique to the region. Whist it’s mostly an after dinner drink, white port or “Porto Branco” is little known outside Portugal and is a popular and readily available aperitif – try it served like a gin & tonic but replace the gin for the port! In Lisbon you can taste Port wines within the very special environment of the “Solar do Vinho do Porto”, the port wine institute located inside an 18th century palace at #45 Rua de São Pedro de Alcantara.

There are also many delicious “Douro” red and white table wines ranging from lighter, Bordeaux style claret to rich Burgundian type wines aged in new oak.

From the lower Douro region, “Vinho Verde”  is a light, slightly sparkling white wine ideal for accompanying seafood dishes;  whilst a far cry from the world-famous sweet and fizzy “Mateus Rosé” exported with spectacular success throughout the world in the 60’s and 70’s,  Portugal now also produces some very drinkable dryer rosé wines.

Some of the country’s best known table wines come from the “Dão” demarcated region which produces full-bodied reds not unlike French burgundies, and a fresh white wine.

But mostly due to its quality/price ratio, “Alentejo” wines are the preferred choice for consumption within Portugal – the typical reds from this region are best described as fruity, rich and smooth; and the fruity, soft whites have a distinctive acidity.

“Moscatel” is a particularly aromatic grape variety, with flowery and citrus flavours, ripened to high sugar levels.  Two regions of Portugal are famous for this type of sweet fortified wines, drunk as either an aperitif or as a dessert wine: the Douro and the Peninsula of Setúbal, across the River Tagus from the city of Lisbon.

THE ART OF DRINKING COFFEE

Coffee drinkers are in for a treat, as this is freshly brewed even in the humblest of cafes and there are dozens of different varieties.  An “espresso” or “bica” (a small strong back coffee) is the most popular, and hen come the variations…

“Café cheio” or “bica cheia” is a full espresso cup.  An “italiano” is a small coffee with extra hot water, whilst a  “cortado” is a slightly shorter measure, so stronger and with less water. A double espresso is a “café duplo” or “bica dupla”. A “carioca” is a full small cup minus the strongest first two seconds of an espresso. For a long black, or a large black coffee, you would order an “abatanado”.

Going the milky way, an espresso with a drop of milk is a “café pingado”; whilst a “garoto” has more milk, about 50/50 coffee-to-milk ratio but still in a small cup; and a “galão” is served in a tall glass with approximately 3/4 milk. You can also choose a “galão escuro” (dark) or a “galão claro” (a lighter one). But ordering a “galão” after midday will  provoke funny looks unless you’re over 80, as it’s considered a breakfast drink – so you might want to save face by ordering a “meia de leite” (regular cup which is half milk) instead.

But these terms are only the most common ways of ordering coffee.  You will need to spend an extended time in Portugal to learn the others… Enjoy!