Friday, July 01, 2011

Creamy pastries in Portugal

"So why is it called bolas de Berlim?", I asked Paula, a local Portuguese whom I met at the hostel in Porto. "It didn't come from Germany, did it?".

Paula laughed, then replied "No, of course not. Because it has two halves, with the thick cream in the middle. Sort of like East and West separated by the wall".

This bizarre explanation with outdated political reference notwithstanding, the bolas de Berlim is just one of many sweet treats in pastelarias' display cases that entice passers-by to ogle and stop for a quick snack.

While critics might harp that Portuguese cuisine doesn't rise to the same meteoric heights as their larger Iberian neighbor, in the sweets department it's definitely no slouch. 

My personal favorite is the pasteis de nata, sweet custard tarts topped with burnt caramel and surrounded by a flaky crust. Four cafes lined the seven-minute walk from my hostel in Lisbon to the metro stop, so every day I would venture inside a different one, order two pasteis with cafe con leche, and devour them standing at the counter.  Hard to beat that for a mid-morning snack.

In Aveiro, a traditional pastry called ovo mole still rules. Shaped in different forms such as shells, fish, and clams, these treats have a very thin wafer-like exterior, and a very sweet inside made of egg yolks and sugar. 

I found the ovos moles quite addictive, and found an excuse to pop one into my mouth every few minutes, only to discover to my chagrin that my newly-purchased box of twelve is now empty. Oh well, time to go back to the store for more.

There are lots more Portuguese pastries that I haven't tasted, possibly for the better,  health-wise. Just these three alone brought my sugar intake to stratospheric levels, and only lots of walking offset the calories (how many, I didn't want to know) that were consumed. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking Portuguese food isn't great, but cast your eyes towards the pastelarias.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yemas de Santa Theresa in Avila

Busloads of tourists congregated at the tiny overlook off the main road, jostling for position to snap photos of themselves with the walled city of Avila in the background.

Avila has long been famous for its association with St. Theresa, the female patron saint of Spain. Her presence in this town is unmissable, with her remains inside the eponymous convent.

Thus, much like the backpacker circuit, this was just a stop on the religious pilgrimage circuit, along with other well-known hot spots such as Fatima, Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela.

I happened to be in the area and purchased a box of yemas de Santa Teresa. In addition to appropriating the saint's name, these sweet egg-yolk and sugar concoctions have been produced since 1860, so they must be pretty good.

Darn good they were. And very sweet. Too sweet. Couldn't resist popping these bite-sized delicacies into my mouth for a quick sugar fix, or just because. After two days, the box of twelve was entirely demolished, with no assistance from anyone. (Not that I offered).

I would have wanted to get my hands on another box to carry me through the rest of the week, but another trip into town was not in the offing. Visitors to Avila should make sure to sample these yemas for a different kind of nourishment after touring all the important spiritual sites.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

On the tapas trail in Madrid

After a hectic English language volunteer week in Valdelavilla, I came back to Madrid with my new friends, both Anglos and Spaniards. Yup, that's what being together for six entire days will do to people - we'll always look back at the fun times in that tiny village in Soria province. 

But first, plans were made to hang out over the weekend and do what everyone loves best: going for tapas in Spain, hitting a few places in one night. First up on Saturday night was MJ, who along with her boyfriend brought Rebecca, Joanne, Aileen and myself on a walk around the main sights in Madrid (whose details I won't bore you with). The food fest started at Taberna Almendro 13 in La Latina for some huevos rotos (broken eggs), pictured on the right, a concoction of sunny side-up eggs, jamon bits and potato chips.  We also had roscas de jamon, a round ham sandwich which everyone shared, washed down by vino or cerveza, of course.

David, another Spaniard on the program, met up with us at Plaza. Sta. Ana, and together we headed to another one of MJ's (and apparently, lots of other locals') favorites, Las Bravas - a casual joint specializing in Spanish fast food. The wait for a table did not deter us, and soon we were gorging on orejas (pig's ears) and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy sauce).  

At first MJ wouldn't tell everyone about the pig's ears, preferring to keep it a mystery, but since I spoke Spanish I knew what she ordered. Any trip of mine wouldn't be complete without eating some weird animal parts, so I was quite eager to taste them. The pig's ears were pretty tasty actually, but some Anglos didn't like biting into the cartilage, so I ate more than my fair share of the dish. 

Last stop for the night was nearby Villa Rosa for some drinks and dramatic touristy flamenco. We didn't have anything to eat anymore; sometimes it's amazing how these little bites fill you up without noticing it. 

Same meeting place and same time on Sunday, but with different Spaniards - Ignacio, Antonio and Jose Luis, three of the most popular participants in the program. 

After some sightseeing we headed over to a hole-in-the-wall joint off Plaza Mayor for some bocadillos - sandwiches stuffed with meat or seafood. JL recommended the bocadillos de calamares (fried shrimp stuffed inside a roll) plus more carbs in the form of patatas bravas, which were less spicy than last night's. 

Once again, the cramped space was packed to the gills, and you can quickly become good friends with diners at adjacent tables given the close quarters. Everyone seemed intent on wolfing down their huge sandwiches in the least amount of time. . 

The tour went on to the next place specializing in mushrooms which seemed a bit hokey, with the cave-like atmosphere, but the chatty piano player who played contemporary Beatles and Pink Floyd hits ("Original Spanish music is really nice to listen to", Antonio quipped wryly), and the mushrooms made up for it. 

I forgot what exactly these were called, but our group was full at this point, and the Anglos were just clamoring for more wine, so off we went to La Latina in search of good vino. Last stop was Taberna Tempranillo on the street Cava Baja, a wine bar with an unparalleled collection of bottles and a perfect place to sip, relax and talk. 

Part of me didn't want these nights to end - it was great to discover these places and dishes that I normally wouldn't have found nor sampled on my own (given the infinite number of establishments in Madrid), but more so the pleasure of new friends' company. Here's to fun times, lasting friendships, and more English conversations. Salut!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheapskate Chronicles: Frugal Eats in Madrid

Eating out in Spain can be an expensive proposition. With tons of restaurants in the major tourist zones in Madrid (Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, etc), if one isn't careful then it is easy to spend lots of money. 

Luckily, your cheapskate traveler has done some legwork in figuring out how to eat good food in Madrid for less euros. Here are a few strategies. 

Go for the menu del dia. Most restaurants offer a fixed-price daily menu during lunch time. This typically costs 9 or 10 euros, and includes two courses, bread, a drink (wine, beer or water), and coffee or dessert. If this sounds like a lot of food, well that's the idea. The dishes below aren't too shabby for the price, eh? Now you know why the Spaniards need a siesta after lunch.

Get free food. Yes, sometimes there are free things in life. At most tapas bars, ordering a drink comes with a plate of tapas, usually olives, or potato chips. 

Although not quite filling enough for a meal, this small snack can tide you over until the late dinner time - 9pm at the earliest, and even then you might have the restaurant all to yourself.

Just don't load up on the booze at one place, or the free tapas might wind up costing you. Moreover, it is customary for the Spanish to eat a couple of small plates at one place, move on to the next to sample their specialty, and so on.  Remember, when in Madrid, do as the Madrilenos do. (Or something like that).

Skip the restaurants and tapas bars.  There are a lot of small cervecerias offering bocadillos, or snacks. Usually these are sandwiches stuffed with calamari, sausages or ham, and cost as little as 2.70 euros ($4). 

Or you can go to a market like Mercado San Miguel and choose among the freshly prepared products from the different counters. At left are jamon iberico sandwiches (2.50 - 3.50 euros or $3-5) which are quite filling. 

Finally, remember: No tipping! Don't be a dumb Yank and give an automatic fifteen, or worse, twenty percent gratuity. 

So,  these are just a few strategies to reduce the cost of meals in Madrid. In addition, just follow common sense advice like checking a restaurant's menu before sitting down, and avoiding tourist traps. 

Be sure you're not among the hapless tourists who got snookered at this restaurant. Check out these prices - 11.50 euros for a mixed salad! And the place was packed to boot. I do get a kick out of other people getting fleeced, as well as a pang of pity.  Allow me my moment of schadenfreude as I munch on sumptuous jamon iberico washed down with vino, knowing I paid much less than for a bunch of leafy veggies.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Porras or Churros - Deep fried goodness at Chocolateria de San Gines, Madrid

The whole world calls them "churros", these deep-fried strips of dough that are eaten for breakfast or a snack, preferably dunked in hot chocolate. However, in Spain, these fat greasy long fingers are called "porras". And the place to be in Madrid to try these is Chocolateria San Gines, tucked behind an alley just off Calle Arenal.

follow the sign to Chocolateria San Gines

Open since 1894, Chocolateria de San Gines is open round the clock, just in case you feel like a midnight snack. Immensely popular among locals and tourists, there is plenty of outdoor seating but like those in a hurry, I stood at the long, marble counter inside and ordered a "chocolate con porras" (3.50 euros, two strips) for a late breakfast. 

The cup of hot chocolate was just to my liking, not cloyingly sweet at all. (A local I met at a tapas bar mentioned a preference for a competing chocolateria, due to its sweeter chocolate, but the name of the establishment esapes me). 

While busy dunking my porras and biting into it, I could peek inside the kitchen where their skinnier counterparts, called churros (this is getting confusing), were being dunked in a huge fryer in long strips, then cut into shorter straws as they came out. These thinner strips came four to an order, and below is a visual (taken at Mercado San Miguel), to illustrate the difference.

If hot chocolate doesn't tickle your fancy, most locals simply dunk their fat or skinny greasy fix into their cafe con leche, and that seems to work splendidly as well. Perhaps I will find out for myself tomorrow. Or tonight.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Eataly's bicerin - non delizioso

There are many reasons to visit Eataly, that mecca of food devoted to everything Italian. One can dine in any of the six restaurants, buy Italian specialty goods or simply dash in for a quick espresso. The hunt for edible confectionery suitable as a birthday gift explained my presence at Eataly on a warm Sunday afternoon.

I fortuitously glanced up at the board above the coffee bar and laid my eyes on the word "bicerin".In a couple of previous posts, I had claimed that this sweet treat from Turin was served only at Pubblico Espresso Bar in the Village - but here was evidence to the contrary.

Eager to sample Eataly's version of bicerin despite the warm weather, I found an empty seat at the counter and took a sip. And another. Whereas my lips expected the taste of cold cream intersecting with hot, robust espresso and sweet chocolate, the layer of cream, alarmingly thin in appearance, was equally overpowered in taste.

A bit of consolation was the Lavazza coffee used in the bicerin, at least that counted for something. I stirred the remains of the concoction, a big no-no, my disappointment apparent to all who cared to notice and my mind racing to find an explanation for this humdrum offering from Eataly.

Compared to Pubblico's bicerin, this was dreadful, or had I just been spoiled? No doubt the ingredients at both places were equally beyond reproach, but the harried baristas at Eataly whom I overheard mixing up customers' orders did not inspire confidence, compared to the sight of Francesca and Alessandro shaking the container of cold cream lovingly.

I did find some pistachio spread and truffles for my friend, so the afternoon wasn't a total waste. Perhaps I'll try a couple of flavors of gelato on a hot summer's day at Eataly, but cozy Pubblico will always be my place for bicerin.

P.S. Excuse the lousy photos taken with a mobile phone.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Bicerin redux at Pubblico Espresso Bar

Bicerin, specialty of Pubblico Cafe
Not quite sure why it took over a month to revisit Pubblico Cafe in the Village for some bicerin, but a blustery un-springlike Saturday afternoon provided the perfect excuse to drop by. 

This time I happened to have a real camera with me, in contrast to my first visit when I used my cell phone to snap a few pics that were quite lousy. 

Strains of Amadou and Mariam's music greeted me as I entered the cafe. It was deserted except for Francesca, the friendly Italian counter person who shared my interest in the blind couple's music, and who managed to convince me to sample two freshly-delivered cookies. Good thing too since my taco lunch left me craving some dessert. 

The tart, intense raspberry chocolate cookie (Francesca's favorite) was to my liking, as well as the wine-infused biscuit with anise. 

But let's not forget what I came for - another taste of bicerin. I recounted to her
how I gave in to Alessandro's enthusiasm the first time, and what a delicious surprise my first taste of the specialty from Turin was.
I was wary of having built up Pubblico's bicerin in my mind, and being disappointed the second time around. However, I'm glad to report that was definitely not the case - the perfect blend of chocolate, espresso and hand-shaken cold cream, accompanied by the cookies and the New York Times magazine, provided a pleasant late-afternoon interlude. And, I hope the photos are much better this time.


Pubblico Espresso Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bicerin, a sweet treat from Turin, has pulled into the station

"Quite a number of storefronts have changed lately on MacDougal St.", I noted, as I started walking northbound along the block from the Bleecker St. intersection, "and not really for the better". It seemed that most of the new food establishments were just re-treads of the same tired concepts found elsewhere.

The sign from a new cafe promising the best espresso caught my eye - and given the swirling winds and frigid temps, my growling stomach, and just a general appetite for discovery - before you know it I had climbed up the few steps and stepped inside Pubblico Espresso cafe.
 The young, beaming counter person (alas, his name I forgot) greeted me warmly, and suggested their specialty - bicerin, a concoction made of espresso and melted chocolate, topped by a layer of cream and roasted coffee beans, which he claims is "only available here in our cafe - in the entire city!" in heavily-accented Italian. I assented, of course - did I really have a choice? Bicerin was totally unfamiliar to myself, and his salesmanship and bold claim were intriguing, to say the least.

While waiting for my order to arrive, I pondered - given that New York City has been having a love fest with all things Italian - witness the success of many recently-opened trattorias, pizzerias, tavernas, and most notably, Eataly - it seemed inconceivable that some novelty Italian food item that hadn't yet conquered our shores.

Finally, he brought over the glass of bicerin to my tiny, round table - only one of four in the cozy, narrow sliver of a space. With the only other patron deeply engrossed in his newspaper, the server found time to give me more background information on bicerin. "It's from Turin - they make the best there - the best!" (imagine the same accent as the restaurateur Poppy on Seinfeld).

Meaning "small glass" in Piedmontese, bicerin is meant to be drank without mixing the hot and cold parts together - "No, no, no...", warned Poppy, wagging his finger for effect. Feeling the heat as I touched the glass, I waited a few minutes before diving in. The top layer of cream was sweet, but not overly so, countered by the dark, roasted espresso and chocolate - the intersection of these elements as the first taste hit my tongue and lingered there was just perfection.

Further reading:
As recently as 2006, during the height of the Winter Olympics in Turin, the New York Times profiled this wonderful warming drink, and noted that it couldn't find a place serving bicerin in the city.

Pubblico Espresso Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Seafood Feast @ The Crab Pot, Seattle

After some sea lion watching at the Seattle Aquarium, we had a couple of hours to kill before the Harbor/Locks/Lake Union cruise in the afternoon. Since it was around lunch time, it was only fitting to gorge on seafood at The Crab Pot right on the waterfront, steps away from the boarding docks.

We had seen The Crab Pot's ad on the Seattle free map given out at the hotel, and although I was a bit skeptical and thought it was a tourist trap, my friend was insistent upon smashing those crabs with a mallet, as their ads showed.  Well, I reluctantly agreed, conceding that their ads were kinda cute.

Perusing their menu, we decided on "The Westport" seafood feast - an assortment of dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, andouille sausages and a heapful of corn on the cob and potatoes. All these were laid out atop a paper sheet on our table, and the obligatory bibs (guaranteed to many anyone above the age of 12 look ridiculous) and mallets disbursed. Off to the races!

I actually did not like eating crabs because it took quite an effort to extract the meat out - apparently I am in the minority, as there was no letup of patrons coming inside The Crab Pot. Most of them, as I suspected, were tourists lured by the bountiful servings, reasonable price, and "good enough" quality. I had to admit though that it was quite fun wielding the mallet and having my way with the poor dungeness crab.

We managed to polish off all the seafood on the table, leaving only some of the fillers - corn and potatoes. Food was ok, nothing exceptional, and I didn't really feel quite full and craved more seafood.  Now that we had gotten The Crab Pot experience out of our systems, time to move on to better establishments.

Crab Pot Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon