Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Get Your Tapas On

     Unlike France, the staff of life in Spain is not bread, it's finger food: TAPAS.  They are an integral part of the Spanish culture and lifestyle, served in cafés and bars throughout the country.  Tapas range from a simple snack of olives or fried almonds to delicious savory dishes which can be served as a light lunch or early evening snack.
     In Madrid, it's difficult to qualify what is authentically local due to its melting-pot status for people and customs (and of course, food) all over Spain.  The popular Patatas Bravas are a very simple mixture of fried or roasted potatoes with a "Brava" sauce.  The sauce is slightly spicy, which comes as a surprise given a country-wide aversion for dishes with the slightest kick.
The calamares, flash-fried in olive oil, can be served alone or with alioli sauce, mayonnaise, or - yep, you're reading it correctly - in a sandwich (Bocadillo de Calamares).   A slice of lemon usually comes with your serving.  It's amazing how everybody in Spain manages to cook squid perfectly.  I never had a tough dish of calamares during my trips around the country.
     Moving on, let's head to the northern part of Spain, particularly the Basque Country (País Basco).  More than any other region in Spain, the Basque Country is known for its culinary originality.  The tapas, like the region itself, tend to be more expensive and inventive.  Here, they call their unbelievable bites pintxos, rather than tapas.  A typical pintxo is simply a skewer composed of a slice of bread, meat or fish, and a pitted olive.  Or they just stack the ingredients one on top of the other.
   From the north, we rush down south to Andalusia, where it all started - allegedly.  The origin of where it all began is still the stuff of heated debates, therefore the allegation.  From what I've been told, in the south of Spain the local sherry was served in a glass with a lid, or tapa, of bread - sometimes topped with ham or cheese - apparently to keep the flies out.  In Spanish, the word "tapar" means to cover something up.
     Anyway, back to tapas in Andalusia.  Known for the warmth of its climate (scorching hot, even) and its people, Andalusian bars tend to be very generous with their tapas.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that they aren't exactly celebrated for culinary inventiveness.  However, tapas here are traditional and among the best.  Pescado frito (fried fish) and albondigas (meatballs) are two common tapas in the region.
Of course, not to be skipped for tapas are the jamón and chorizo.  Hams hang ubiquitously over every bar, with little upturned paper umbrellas underneath to catch dissolving fat.  Chorizo varieties are endless, each having flavor as distinct as the regions where they come from.
     Tapas are indeed Spain's greatest food invention.  "Eat when you drink, drink when you eat" is the philosophy.  So when in Spain, treat yourself to some or better yet - go for the long haul and do a tapas crawl.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Brioche Dorée

     This is a very popular fast food chain in France, serving quick meals and snacks, like sandwiches and pastries.  I came across Brioche Dorée near Gare Du Montparnasse.  I haven't had my breakfast, and the food looked appetizing enough so in I went. 
     I've always liked Quiche Lorraine, so I took one.  The most attractive looking pastry at that time was the Strawberry Tart, so I grabbed one as well.  Thinking this was just one of those fast food chains that serve average food, I walked to my table.  When I took a bite of my quiche, I felt like someone slapped me in the face.  Freshly baked, flaky thin crust with delicious egg filling - it blew me away.  The eggs were cooked perfectly; super fluffy and moist with just the right amount of flavorful ham.

I was so engrossed eating this that I almost forgot about the tart.  Enormous, luscious glazed strawberries on top of a sweet, custard filling.  The pastry was solid - look ma, no crumbling!  It doesn't get any better than this.

     Only few fast food chains make above-average quality food, and Brioche Dorée is definitely one of them.

Brioche Dorée (all over France)
Main Montparnasse
11 Rue de l'Arrive
75015 Paris

Le Relais Gascon

     After navigating the narrow streets of hilly Montmartre, I came across this quaint-looking French restaurant.  Ironically, Montmartre is full of Italian restaurants, rivaling the number of local ones in the area.  Of course all restaurants were full but fortunately at that time I saw some vacant tables at Le Relais Gascon.  As you read on, you will find out why this was so. 
     When I saw escargots on the menu, there was not even a split second of hesitation.  I had to eat it.  Light-colored shells stuffed with bright green herbs then cooked in butter.  Tender but tasted earthy.  I could definitely taste the soil in there.  Did they even bother cleaning it?  Am I being too picky, given the fact that these creatures crawl the earth and therefore, should taste like, erm, the earth?  Nah.  I've eaten enough snails in my life to know what they taste like.  In this case they look way much better than they tasted.

    Now on to my entree: Pavé de Rumsteak avec sauce Roquefort.  I am a huge fan of Roquefort cheese so I went for this steak, thinking not much could go wrong with steak and fries.  Hmmm.  The meat was slightly tough, I had a bit of a struggle chewing it and the sauce was too thin and bitter to my liking.  The cook had better things to do than mind the sauce, I suppose.

     It is a fact that restaurants in Paris charge an arm and a leg but I don't mind spending more if the food is good.  But when you end up thinking you're spending more to rest your tired, aching feet instead of getting good food, you're much better off eating at McDonald's. 
     However, I was not ready to give up.  I gave Montmartre another once around and went for the one thing I think the French are exceptional in making: bread.  This time, the photos don't do justice. 

     Forget what's in it.  Here, bread is the star of the show and when you're in France, you can live on it alone because it's  fresh, deliriously fragrant, crunchy, and soft to the bite.  Bon appétit indeed.

Le Relais Gascon (go at your own risk)
13 Rue Joseph de Maistre
75018 Montmartre, Paris 

Assorted sandwiches - available in cafes and boulangeries all around the city

De Brave Broeder

     Roughly translated as "The Good Monk", this is a typical Dutch pub.  Dark wooden walls with minimal lighting, wooden chairs and of course:  steep stairs.  Two walls are lined with a mural depicting the total opposite of what a good monk should be.  It's the last day of a week-long fair in town and even though there were loads of people, the pub was almost empty except for two men at the bar.  I wasn't that hungry, thanks to my idiotic decision earlier to ride on the "Extreme Wipeout".  It's this giant claw that rotates while swinging back and forth.  Once it starts, it doesn't slow down.  Looks fun when you're not on it but once you've sat on that tight seat and the bar comes down to lock you in, you've sealed your fate.  Too late to back out now, genius.  When it starts to hurtle you in all directions, it's not so fun anymore.  How can the others not feel nauseous after 3 epic minutes of that horrific ride?  Age is not "just a number", folks.
     Okay, nauseous rides aside, let me tell you what I ate at this pub - Mustard Soup and Pork Satay.  The soup was creamy, tangy, and sweet - loved it.  Like my pasta, I prefer my soup cream-based so I was happy with this dish.  As for the main dish, it was equally good.  A generous serving of meat and chips - too generous in fact, considering I wasn't that hungry due to the crazy ride.  Nevertheless, it was good quality meat and the satay sauce was smooth and creamy, with the right amount of peanut taste.  It was a shame I couldn't finish the dish then but on a good day I think I could, without a doubt, easily finish it.  For dessert, I decided to overload on chocolate.  No better way to do that than by ordering a trio of chocolate mousse, ice cream, and a brownie...with....wait for it: whipped cream in the middle and some strawberry slices.  A perfect way to end a meal, and to balance that moment of stupidity with the ride.

Before I end this article, I just have to show you what the Extreme Wipeout looks like:
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

De Brave Broeder
Grote Kerkhof 25/26
7411 KV Deventer