Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A summer weekend at the beach

Another almost-forgotten post, this one dating back to the last weekend in June when we decided to dash up to the Norfolk coast to Hunstanton. We had already made a quick visit to the Hunstanton lighthouse last year, but this time we picked a beachside B&B and stayed for two nights. We had no plans and that was nice as the place was a typical beach town with not much to going on. We spent the first day strolling the beach, most of it along the dramatic Hunstanton cliffs. And to our surprise, we stumbled across dozens of people kite surfing--folks using massive parachute-like kites to pull them along mini-surfboards on the water. Turns out that where the cliffs end a strong wind streams across the beach making Hunstaton a hot spot for the sport--it was the home of an extreme kitesurfing competition the weekend after we visited.

The second day we planned a long bike ride along the coast, which got off to a rocky start as my back tire blew out in the first minutes of the ride. Fortunately we found a friendly bike shop and were again on our way about 90 minutes later. The route wasn't right along the coast but still was pretty as we glided through the English countryside and struggled up more hills than we expected. We stopped at pretty churches, watched a bit of two cricket games we happened upon, cycled through the amazing estate of Holkham Hall, and ended up at the gorgeous beach of the seaside town Wells-next-the-Sea. As we rolled into the town, dramatic clouds we saw on the beach started to produce a hard rain so we locked up our bikes at the tourist center, had a pint at two local pubs, and hopped a bus that sped us back to Hunstanton, hoping our bikes would still be around the next day when we drove home--they were. And to cap off the weekend we stopped at the ruins of a medieval castle and picnicked with food we had picked up a Hunstanton deli. --J.T

Norfolk coast weekend photo album

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh, Porto

After weekends in Barcelona, riding a bike from London to Cambridge, attending the folk festival, and the 3 week trip to Paris and Italy, I had almost forgotten my wonderful weekend in Porto, now more than three months ago. That's a shame so I'm reviving the post I began so long ago. Porto--its English name has long been Oporto but the city actively discourages that now-- is Portugal's second biggest city, after Lisbon, but we consider it first-rate after our recent (ok, not so recent--early June) weekend there. Our friend Andrea was attending a meeting in Lisbon and wanted to vacation first, so we decided to meet in Porto the weekend before her conference and she and KT would then drive to Lisbon, stopping off at various sites while I went home to work. Andrea's friend Caroline, who was touring Europe, decided to join the fun so we went ahead and rented an apartment for the Porto weekend.

Although we like the space and flexibility of an apartment, we're always slightly nervous about going that route--will it look like the pictures on the internet, is the location ok, etc. Who knew the biggest problem would be getting to the place. The apartment wasn't actually in Porto, it was in Vila de Nova Gaia, the town across the river from Porto--they're really two sides of the same coin, but our taxidriver at the airport was mystified. It's never good when you tell a taxi driver the location and he hops out of the cab to ask the other drivers. Turns out the instructions he got were confused and the other driver told ours to go someplace near the coast--we could see the ocean--and far away from Villa de Noa Gai. It took KT and I a bit to realize we were off track and even longer to have the nerve to tell the driver (maybe he knew a secret route) but we eventually headed back in the right direction--only to get lost again. And again. We were in the right neighborhood but not even the local cop could direct our driver the right way. Eventually he stopped at a local taxi stand and the drivers there put us on the right path to the apartment.

And no one is home. We were supposed to get keys from Rosie, the neighbor and cleaner of the apartment but she didn't answer the bell. KT finally called Rosie's cell phone but we don't speak Portuguese and she doesn't speak English. Fortunately, the embarrassed cab driver had stuck around to help and he started chatting with Rosie and learned she had left the keys at the cafe across the street. A long walk up the stairs to the 5th floor apartment and we had finally made it! And it was worth it--the apt was huge and the living room view (the picture at the top and at the end of this post) was worth being outside of Porto itself.

After unpacking, KT and I made our way down the hill to the river on a curving street with no sidewalk. We also passed Graham's port lodge, the one whose sign we could see the back of from the apartment (see picture at top). After roaming the riverfront a bit, we gave into hunger and stopped at what was apparently a brewpub. There we had our first encounter with the francenshina (right), the carnivore-lovers sandwich that's popular in Portugal. As I recall, mine had steak, ham, and sausage--hmm, I may be forgetting another meat--and was then covered with a huge slice of melted cheese, before a spicy tomato souplike sauce was poured on top. KT had the same, but added prawns--which she expected on the side but came in the sandwich. Each sandwich was a meal for two and certainly slowed us down for the rest of the afternoon. We meandered along the Vila de Nova Gaia side of the river, crossed the bridge and strolled along the bank on the Porto side. By that time we had to rush to meet our friends at the train station and take them back to the apartment, thankfully with a cab driver who knew his way.

Still wondering if there was an easier route from the apartment down to the river, we decided to take what looked like a promising back-street route that soon turned into a back alley and then a walled hidden walkway that we worried would hit a dead-end or contain muggers waiting for silly tourists. But we eventually found a way out and walked the city/cities a bit more, having a glass of port naturally along the river, before landing for dinner at a guide-booked recommended restaurant that was clearly a locals place. The food was decent but we spent much of the time debating what leafy vegetable made up Andrea's caldo verde (green soup)--we learned at the market the next day when we saw elderly women shredding lots of kale on a hand-powered machine.

On the Saturday trip to the market--thankfully we discovered a bus that went from our apartment down the huge hill and right into Porto--we loaded up a bag with bread, cheese, meats and olives because we had decided to hop a train out to the Douro valley, which is essentially the port equivalent of what Napa valley is for wine. All the grapes for port are grown in this region, often on spectacularly terraced hills than can only be handpicked during the late summer heat. Once the port is made it is then shipped down to Porto where it ages in huge lodges, either in bottles or casks. The port used to be transferred by boat, and you still see port sailboats on the river, mostly for show. I should note the train stations in the Porto region are noted for the beauty of their hand-painted tile murals (left) called azulejo. You can see many more pictures of them at our Porto web album.

The second hour of the train ride when we got into the river valley was beautiful and when we reached the town of Regua we found a park on a hill overlooking the Douro river and lunched on our market purchases. We then roamed Regua a bit aimlessly, not finding the port lodges we expected to see but finally making it to the Port Wine Institute, which was part a museum devoted to the history of port production and part a beautiful tasting room where one could sample hundreds of ports at ridiculously cheap prices. I think the 4 of us had 12 different glasses of port and I bought a bottle of port, all of it for less than $50--in the U.S some of the ports we had would have cost more than $50 a glass.

Sunday was a day to roam Porto itself. And we started with finally visiting a port lodge, Graham's since we could see it outside our window. We had a great tour where we learned the differences between, ruby, tawny, crusted and vintage ports. don't ask me what they are because we followed the tour with a leisurely tasting of 6 different Graham's ports! And if starting Sunday morning by drinking port wasn't bad enough, we then moved onto a brunch with endless supply of more drinks. Andrea had read of a great restaurant that serves an all you can eat buffet of Portuguese specialities but the first two nights we passed on it for dinner as we weren't that hungry. Sunday we more than made up for it with a nearly 3 hour frenzy of food and drink that started around noon--a huge cheese table, endless buffet, bottles of the lovely vino verde wine, champaigne, port and our new favorite, an almond liquer called Amenoda amarga that is served highly chilled and with a squeeze of lemon. We spent the rest of the day working off the meal and the port tasting by walking up the many hills of Porto. One sidetrip went a beautiful church with an impressive crypt full of bones. And we ended the day at a little riverfront plaza where a huge TV screen had been placed so people could watch each day's Euro2008 football matches. That night Portugal was playing Switzerland and we got good seats and waved the flags handed out--Portugal lost but the crowd wasn't too depressed as the team had already qualified for the next round. I'm not sure we saw all Porto had to offer in the short weekend I had there, but we certainly had fun.--J.T.

Nighttime view from our apartment, courtesy Andrea's skill and camera.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Trip Report: Food in Italy

This wasn't a very sightseeing-intense trip (well, by our standards, anyway), so why not talk about the food before we get to the sights?



First courses range from salads to soups to meats. Our favorites:

Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup): You have to suspend your notion of "soup" for this one; the consistency is more like a bowl of oatmeal or grits. This picture looks the closest to what we were usually served -- what one commenter rightly calls "a bowl of red goop." It's pleasure is in its simplicity: Tomatoes. Olive oil. Garlic. Basil. Bread. Salt. That's it. Absolutely heavenly.

Insalata caprese: Again, simple: Slices of fresh tomato (which are freakishly delicious in Italy), slices of fresh mozzarella (buffalo or otherwise), a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, torn basil. Sooo good.

Prosciutto e melone: "Prosciutto" is Italian for ham, but what we're talking here is prosciutto crudo -- dry-cured ham. In the US, you find this at the deli for something like $25 a pound. You don't eat pounds of this, though: Paper-thin slices do the trick.

The north-central region is famous for its prosciutto production. Some of our foodie friends will be horrified to learn that we did not go to the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma while we were there. It was a tough call, but let me assure you that it is quite possible to eat prosciutto on the beach (or anywhere that doesn't involve a map or driving or learning or wearing something other than a swimsuit). I have a twinge of regret about not going to the Museo del Prosciutto di Parma or Museo del Salame (yep, ham and salami museums) because, seriously, could there be a cooler museum?

Anyway, prosciuttos are named for their regions of origin: prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Danielle, etc. Some are sweet, some are really really dry. All are delicious. Prosciutto is rather ubiquitous, but one way to eat it is wrapped around cantaloupe as an appetizer. Salty and sweet. Fabulous.

Lardo: That looks suspiciously like lard, doesn't it? It is. But not in the US sense of rendered and clarified pork fat. Instead, it's pork back fat, cured with salt and spices. I'm sure this will be a tough sell to many of you, but trust me, it was delightful. We visited a town known for its lardo production, the mountaintop town of Colonatta. This link tells you even more about the Slice thinly and serve on toast. Melts in your mouth like butter, with a nice buzz of spice and herb.

Primi Piatti

After antipasti, the next course in a restaurant will be a small portion of pasta. Various forms of tomato sauces made appearances, as did lots of pesto and of course plain old butter, perhaps with some sage. My favorite ravioli came from the market in Florence -- pumpkin ravioli and potato ravioli. Paired with tomato sauce and pesto (respectively), they were fantastic.

We also really like gnocchi, which are small dumpling-like things made from potato. I had gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce one day -- it was almost too rich. Almost.

Secondi Piatti

An antipasti and a main makes for a fine meal. But why stop there? The "main" in Tuscany is meat. Portions usually assume you have had a course or two before it -- that is, they aren't enormous portions of meat. That is, unless you've have …

Bistecca alla Fiorentina: This is a giant t-bone steak that appears on menus with a price per 100g. But you don't get to say, "I think I'd like 400 g of beef, please." Oh, no. We ended up with about a 1.2 kg steak. What's so good about it? Once again, the simplicity of the preparation: Cook over hot charcoal. Heavily season with salt and pepper. That's it. So, so very good.

Saltimbocca: I got this one day at the market and cooked it at our rental apartment. It's thinly sliced veal with a thin slice of prosciutto and one of cheese inside, dosed with sage. Fry quickly in olive oil, add salt, and it's a little piece of heaven.

Tuscan bread: This isn't necessarily a secondi, but if served bread in a Tuscan restaurant, best to resist until you get your meat course. We went a few days of all trying the bread, and politely pushing it aside. Finally JT thought to Google it. As this NYT article explains, traditional Tuscan bread lacks salt; it's meant to accompany the heavily salted main dishes. We quickly learned to buy pane con sale -- bread with salt -- in the bakeries.


You look at dishes like General Tso's Chicken and think they couldn't possibly eat this in China. Well, they definitely eat pizza in Italy, and we had some good ones. I'm not sure we found pizza nirvana, but we certainly didn't have a bad one. They're always made individual-sized, and the crust is pretty thin. My favorite toppings were spicy sausage or salami, probably because those are so exceptionally good in Italy. I also enjoyed pizze quattro stagioni -- mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and ham. Our favorite pizza came from a tiny little walk-up place in Lido di Pietrasanta. We had pizza on more than half of our 14 days in Italy. Maybe more.

I dolci

Oh, the gelato. Gelato is basically ice cream, but more dense because it has less air in it, it has a lower percentage of milkfat in it, and for those reasons tends to be more intense. David Lebovitz explains here. My favorite flavors were the dark chocolates, but fruits such as lemon and strawberry were fantastic as well. And: It's EVERYWHERE in Italy.

(You might think I'd also write about tiramisu here. I'm not sure we had any tiramisu of note -- it was often too much like a bowl of whipped cream with some cinnamon on top. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you've had stellar tiramisu, well, anything less just won't do.)

Market finds:

Porchetta: Mmm, porchetta. We wish we would have encountered this again because it's is something we'll never make or encounter outside of Italy. Here's the description from the Wikipedia entry: "The body of the pig is gutted, boned, arranged carefully with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted, traditionally over wood. Porchetta is usually heavily salted in addition to being stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel, or other herbs, often wild."

Sooo good. We got ours at a market one day. I thought it would make good sandwiches to take to the beach, and hoo boy, did it ever. I think we waited all of 45 minutes before saying, "Gee, don't you think it's time for lunch?"

My mother-in-law has said that she rarely cooks pork anymore because they now breed them so lean in the US that the meat has barely any flavor. Well, let me assure you that there are some big fat flavorful pigs in Italy. I'm not sure where they are, because I didn't actually see any live pigs. But the prosciutto, lardo, and porchetta all suggest that they are fed well and enormous, wherever they are.

My most substantial market trip was to the Mercato Centrale in Florence, where I got all the makings for the meal I've mentioned a few times. I didn't really have to cook a thing, other than boiling and frying -- fresh ready-made pastas, fresh sauces, etc. Tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella get you insalata caprese; prosciutto and melone, well, self-explanatory; one vendor had pappa alla pomodoro all ready to go, as well as the pesto and tomato sauces for the pasta; pasta stand had the two kinds of ravioli; a butcher had the saltimboccas all ready to go, complete with toothpicks holding them together. The dessert (chocolatey baked cookie-like goodness) came from a store outside the market but is irrelevant because none of us could touch it after eating all of the above.

Restaurants of note:

Nuti, Borgo San Lorenzo, Florence: Our first dining experience in Florence, and it was delicious! We had a hankering for pizza, and Nuti satisfied. House chianti was the best we had on the entire trip, but we think a big reason for this is because it was slightly chilled. There are two Nutis across the street from each other, but we didn't bother to figure out the difference between the two. The street looks like a tourist trap, and perhaps it is. But we had good food and good service for a good price, both here and at …

Giannino, Florence: This is two doors down from Nuti. The website proclaims the bistecca alla fiorentina to be its specialty, but we didn't have that here. Instead, we thought their pastas were the best we had on the trip -- one was in tomato sauce with red wine and lamb, and another was a divine pesto. We remember having excellent desserts here but can't remember what they were.

Ciro and Sons, Florence: This is where we had the bistecca alla Fiorentina. Everything we had was delicious -- pizza, steak, pasta, etc.

Acqua al Due, Florence: Niece J suggested this place to us. Really good! The nice thing about it is that you can get a sampler of their salads, a pasta sampler, a main course sampler, etc. The attraction, though, was a beef fillet with a blueberry sauce! Very delicious.

Lo Sprocco, Pietrasanta: We walked by this place and knew right away we'd dine here. Why? The giant baskets of salami on the table. They bring you this basket, plus a cutting board and sharp knife, not to mention olives and various other veggie antipasti. Our pasta courses were excellent, too. Mine was formed from pumpkin and ricotta, and was in a butter sauce.

Enoteca Il Pirun, Corniglia: Il Pirun is definitely worth the stop if you're doing the five villages of Cinque Terre. We were hot, tired, and in need of a rest. There was an empty table for us at Il Pirun, so we sat down. In my version of Italian, which is Spanish with hand gestures, I got us two white wines -- turned out to be vermentino. The cold, crisp wine was just what we needed -- and it was absolutely delicious. The raspy voice of Italian bluesman Folco Orselli blasted throughout the small, cozy store. We tried another wine, and then the local limoncino (not to be confused with limoncello). The proprietor makes his own wine, too, and is very generous and friendly.

As always, here are more pictures of food in Italy. I wasn't as diligent as usual with photographing my food.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The rebounding dollar

Did you put off that trip to England because of costs--well, it's getting cheaper by the minute as the UK economy tanks worse than the U.S. The graph says it all but here's an excerpt from the Wall St Journal article it was in.

Weakening Pound Has Room To Continue Downward Spiral
LONDON -- After holding its own against the U.S. dollar throughout the financial crunch, the British currency could be in for a prolonged pounding.
Already down nearly 10% against the dollar over the past month, the pound faces a crisis of confidence as investors fret about U.K. policy makers' efforts and ability to manage a sharp economic downturn. While short-term surges are likely, analysts and economists see deeper issues that could cause it to slide further.
The bleak outlook stems from a confluence of factors. For one, while the credit crunch will prove punishing for the U.S., the prospects for the U.K. are increasingly worse.
Many forecasters believe the British economy is already in a contraction that will last at least through the end of this year. The gloomy outlook, together with waning inflation fears, increases the odds that the Bank of England will lower interest rates, lowering the returns investors can reap by putting their money in pounds.
More important, conflicting messages from the U.K. government have raised concerns among traders and investors that policy makers don't have a handle on the depth of the country's economic woes, or on how to respond.
We'll now return you to our regularly scheduled vacation highlights.--JT

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Random Italian Scultptures #2

One of the many leftover sculptures from previous exhibits in the town of Pietrasanta--the current exhibit, by Mexican sculptor Javier Marin, was amazing and pictures will follow, but this morning we're off to explore Cinque Terre, the 5 beautiful villages cut into the rock cliffs along the Italian coast.--JT

Monday, September 1, 2008

Under My Own Tuscan Sun*

August 31, 2008

I wake up this morning -- our first night a rural beach town after a week in busy Florence -- and roll aside the shutters. Squinting, I see a hazy, calm morning outside. But I don't want to look just yet -- my eyes weren't ready for this after a 9-hour slumber. It's the best sleep I've had in a week. In Florence we had to close up the windows and shutters and use the air conditioning, as the noise of every conversation and argument and dropped bottle and zippy motorbike from the busy street below echoed up to our second-floor bedroom as if it were happening right there. But here, there isn't even air conditioning if we wanted it. So this morning, I breathe easy, with no hint of the pain of a dry throat.

I head into the kitchen to look for the Moka pot that's surely there; I find two. It's a ritual I've had for two weeks now: Rinse out the pot -- never soap, as that would get rid of the layer of coffee oil that die-hard Moka pot fans proclaim is necessary for the proper function of the pot -- fill the bottom with water, put the coffee into the basket and gently tap it down with a spoon, screw on the top of the pot, and put it on the stove. As I start the process of puttering around the kitchen while waiting for the coffee to boil, I open the door in the kitchen and look out. A man sits in a chair next to the neighboring stream which I wouldn't have guessed held fish. Two women a few houses down are already out on their balcony, perhaps taking their morning espresso with the morning sun.

We have a leisurely breakfast, then pack up and head to the beach. We're surrounding by all types of groups: Small families, big families, groups of couples, groups of singles. We were warned it would be crowded on this last day of August and therefore the end of the European holiday season. But by our standards, it's hardly crowded -- there are enough people milling around to provide constant people-watching, but few enough that no one ever encroaches on your sand space.

The beach is beautiful: fine sand, calm surf, orderly rows of tents and chairs. Behind us the skyline is that of the Apuan Alps, whose marble has provided material for Italian sculptors for centuries. Many people complain about the private beach system in Italy, but we decide we don't mind it, as we're quite happy to have the comfortable chairs, sun umbrella, beach bar, and facilities at our disposal.

We're instantly calm when we land in our chairs -- this is a vacation we've anticipated for weeks but that only took shape a few days before it started. We have nothing close to the tan (or physique) of most of the people around us who are leaving today after spending weeks here. But we find peace at the sea nevertheless -- the license to people-watch, read a book, nap, stroll, run, socialize, keep to ourselves. After a couple of hours, John decides to go into the water. He likes to float in the sea; when I join him a half an hour later, I quickly spot his head and two feet undulating in sync in the water. The beach is relatively empty now; it's lunchtime in Italy, and that's not taken lightly. Many people return to their hotels or villas or homes for a feast.

Unremarkable hours pass, perhaps a little too quickly. Soon it's nearly dusk. We start to talk about evening plans, but it gets complicated, so we just go for a walk on the beach. Nearly everyone is gone now, and we don't understand. The sun is falling into the sea and the light on the water is phenomenal. The day's heat is gone -- it's perhaps even brisk. This is the best time to be walking along the beach. Finally we see a woman just arrive, strip down to her bikini, and walk straight in the water to her waist. She knows what a precious time of day this is. When we finally make it back to our beach, we realize the woman has been walking just behind us in the water -- what a fantastic way to exercise.

We head back to our house, a spacious apartment about two kilometres from the beach. After showers and a quick bit of research, we head to the nearby town of Pietrasanta, which we learn upon arriving was a brilliant choice, no matter that it was random. It's nearly 9 p.m. and the town's main piazza is alive with people and light. We're anxious to look around but we're also hungry. We quickly settle on a restaurant based entirely on the fact that the people at its outdoor tables are grazing on antipasti that includes a huge basket of salami -- at least 10 different kinds. It ends up being a good choice. We take our seats in the restaurant's side garden and settle in for what ends up being a two-hour, three-course affair, including, of course, the antipasti, a pasta course, and a meat course, washed down with a bottle of the restaurant's delicious house red.

We leave the restaurant entirely too full. Just a couple of doors down we gaze into a gallery at a perfectly clear sculpture of a telescope. It takes a minute to register that I'm looking at it through an open door -- the gallery is open. In fact, most of the galleries in town are open, despite it being past 11 p.m. on a Sunday. Indeed, more people are strolling now than before, including Italian women decked out in designer dresses and towering heels. We take in the art, most of which is amazing. The piazza and a local church have been taken over by the gigantic works of Mexican sculptor Javier Marin -- eight horsemen mounted 10 feet in the air march through the center of the piazza; three huge sculpted heads are perched around the square; the church displays human forms that require much more thought and introspection than we were able to give them. It's absolutely phenomenal.

We later learn that the town is quite famous for its sculpture displays, and its studios house the likes of Fernando Botero and others. There are many marble quarries in the nearby Apuan Alps and much of the stone ends up in town workshops where artists produce new sculptures or replicate the masters. We're also overwhelmed by the town's duomo, or cathedral, San Martino, whose roots go back to the 13th century. Its marble columns, frescoes, and paintings leave no doubt that we are in Italy.

One gelato later, we're in the car heading home. There we quickly get ready for bed, completely exhausted by our day of relaxation. We fall into another slumber, so we can wake tomorrow and do it all again.

*Disclaimer: I actually am reading Francis Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun right now, hence me pretty much ripping off her writing style.

Random Italian Sculpture #1

We're too busy doing nothing at the beach to write long blog posts, so this morning you simply get my camera phone pics of a sculpture in the garden at the Florence conference hall I was at last week. Nope, I don't know anything about it--time to go swimming.--jt