Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.

My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)

Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.

culturetravel
  2017-07-29 14:20 Z

Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.

We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.

Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.

The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.

We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

culturetravel
  2016-08-10 23:04 Z

Just got back from vacation in Hawaiʻi. Last time was the Big Island, this time was Maui and Oʻahu. Here’s some photos and tweets.

Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.

Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.

We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.

culturetravel
  2016-03-07 22:19 Z

There’s two kinds of cucumber pickle in the world: fermented and vinegar. Vinegar pickles are what you generally see in the grocery store, the Claussens and Vlasics. They’re not bad but they are awfully salty and the industrial vinegar is not a very good flavor. Fermented pickles are made without vinegar. Instead the vegetable is salted and then fermented to encourage lactic acid bacteria, which makes the pickles sour.

Sonoma Brinery makes an exceptionally good fermented pickle. They’re available in grocery stores in the US west, sold refrigerated. And while they’re not cheap at about $1 a large pickle they are delicious. Great flavor and good snap. They call them “half-sour”. They have a pleasant sour taste but it’s subdued, also the salt level is quite low. The result is a mild, fresh tasting pickle, something I much prefer to Bubbie’s intensely sour and salty fermented pickles. Sonoma Brinery’s fresh sauerkraut is also delicious.

Fermented foods are newly trendy thanks to the probiotic food fad (move over, gluten free). I could care less about the fake food science but I am glad that fermented flavors are more widely available in grocery stores. I’m not a fan of kombucha, too expensive and too sweet. But sauerkraut, kimchi, etc are delicious. I’ve started trying to ferment my own things now with Sandor Katz’s excellent book.

culturefood
  2015-08-19 17:38 Z

Ken and I went to India in February, a three week wealthy tourist’s trip. Absolutely loved it, would like to go back, enthusiastically recommended it. I documented most of the trip on Twitter as I went. I collected all the tweets in a Storify page; quite readable with lots of photos.

Our trip started in Delhi. From there we took a luxury tourist train through Rajastan for seven days to Mumbai. Then flew to Kolkata, then to Varanasi, then back through Delhi to home. So many amazing experiences. Some tourist sites that stuck with me most are the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, the Marble Palace in Kolkata, and offerings to Shiva in Varanasi.

But what really struck with me is newfound respect for the sophistication of India. I had no idea what to expect. India is an enormous place. With a very rich and complex cultural history and a colonial period that was not entirely rapacious. Modern India is a dynamic, exciting, upwardly mobile place. With nearly 1.3 billion people. We all know China is the up-and-coming economic story but India is close behind it. I met a lot of Indians with pride, pride in their cultural history, in their intellectual history, in their new prime minister.

On a more mundane level I also came away with excitement for the diversity of Indian cuisine. The Indian food we get in the US is one specific type of cuisine: Mughlai, butter and cream and earthy rich flavors. But there’s a huge variety of other foods. Coconut milk in South Indian cuisine, sour fruits and shellfish in Kerala cuisine, strong mustard sauces in Bengali food. A particularly great day was cooking lessons in Delhi with the author of a Chettinad cookbook. There’s a lifetime of technique to learn just in the art of tadka, the way spices are precisely roasted or fried at various moments in preparation.

culturetravel
  2015-07-04 15:49 Z

I’ve gotten competent at making pizza at home. It’s an easy versatile meal, 15 minutes prep time once you have the dough. I tend to make a sort of puttanesca pizza: capers, olives, anchovies, sauce from a jar (the shame) and some salami. Today was turkey leftover pizza with white sauce, I regret being too timid to try cranberry sauce after baking.

My go-to cookbook is American Pie, specifically the “neo-Neapolitan” dough variant. I’ll make a batch of 5 servings of dough and freeze 4. A stand mixer is a huge help, the dough is very glutenous. I recently learned slicing the mozzerella works better than grating, and so much easier. The dough takes time to ferment, thaw, etc but not much active work.

The challenge of home pizza is our ovens don’t go over 550°F. I get decent results in a home oven on a pizza stone, but Ken just got a Baking Steel from Sur la Table so I gave that a shot. It definitely cooks faster and chars the crust more; too much so, the bottom was about to burn before the edge was fully baked. The steel is heavy, rusts, and needs seasoning like a cast iron skillet. I’m not sure it’s a huge improvement over a clay tile.

Neapolitan-style pizza dough is pretty tempermental. For something different and foolproof this pan pizza recipe works pretty well. A no-knead dough sort of fried up in a cast iron skillet in the oven. It’s not elegant, more of a fast-food style pizza, but it’s delicious and fresh and that is its own reward.

culturefood
  2014-11-29 21:48 Z

Ken and I went back to Paris for the first time in a few years, visited a bunch of old favorite spots. Some sadly in decline (Le Caveau du Palais), some still good. And a couple of new experiences.

Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes
Rustic, hearty restaurant. Specializes in cassoulet presented with pride in giant copper vats. It was a delicious cassoulet and definitely satisfied our hunger for same but I have some reservations. Cassoulet is never a light dish, but the quarter inch of grease floating on top of my bowl was a bit troubling. OTOH the goose leg confit was just amazing. Comfortable room, nice people, I will gladly go back.
Au Bourguignon du Marais
One of our old favorite restaurants, still delicious food. It’s a bit more interesting than the usual bistro menu, well prepared and with good wines. We went on a Saturday night and it was intensely crowded and about 80% tourists, which put us off a bit, next time I’ll go at a quieter time.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Another old favorite, the basic steak frites experience. Perfect lunch for a day of wandering around Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Ma Bourgogne
A fine bistro under the arcades of the Places des Vosges, this has been one of Ken’s favorites for years. Personally I thought it was good but nothing particularly distinguishes the food. Reliable and pleasant though, and you can’t beat the location.
Taillevent
One of Paris’ famous temples of food, two or three Michelin stars for years and years. I go back and forth on how I feel about this place. It’s a bit too traditional, uninspired in the kitchen. There’s no complex molecular gastronomy and radical flavor combinations you’d expect from high end chefs. On the other hand every single experience I or my friends have had there has been excellent, something I can’t say for some of the other super fancy restaurants in Paris. So I enthusiastically recommend it if you want to experience the very pinnacle of a French dining experience, albeit without being on the forefront of gastronomic exploration.
Hotel de Vendôme
Good luxury boutique hotel with an excellent central location, friendly staff, and very comfortable rooms. Also terribly expensive, although for this class of hotel it’s better value than you get from the competition. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a pretty good rate (€350 / night), particularly mid-week. The furnishings are starting to feel a bit worn and the Internet didn’t work as well as it should, so not perfect.
Musée Carnavalet
The Paris city museum, the quirkiness of random stuff the city has collected makes it one of my favorites. It’s not well organized, the quality varies highly, parts of the museum are closed at random intervals because someone went to lunch. But there’s a feel of discovery in the museum, finding an unexpected 1871 painting from the Commune or a beautiful wooden cradle in the shape of a boat or a collection of 25 little busts of Spinoza. It helps that it’s free and situated in the Marais where you’re probably wandering around anyway. You can just pop in for 30 minutes and see a couple of rooms, then leave without feeling like you had to see everything.
culturetravel
  2014-10-16 14:39 Z

One of the few things I can cook competently is Tex-Mex chili. It’s basically a pot of meat cooked with red chile and onion. No beans, no tomato. Hearty and delicious with tortillas, sharp cheddar, fresh onion, and sour cream garnishes.

I’ve learned to make chili from scratch. But if you want to cheat, Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili Kit is a reasonable compromise. It’s not as good as making it the hard way but it’s still pretty good, particularly if you bump it up with some of your own chile powder.

To make it from scratch, I use this Homesick Texan recipe. I love her blog and cookbook. It’s a very fussy recipe but makes an excellent result. Over time I’ve modified it a bit.

  • Working with all those kinds of whole chile makes a well rounded flavor but is a lot of effort (and tricky shopping). I usually end up using some powdered New Mexican red chile instead of some or all of the varieties she calls for, you just dump it in like a spice (a lot of it; more than half a cup for 4 pounds of meat if that’s all the chile you use).
  • The chipotle in adobo is the most important extra flavor and is easy to add from a can. Beyond that you want dried chiles and the extra work that entails. Cayenne is for heat, not flavor.
  • The recipe calls for chuck roast. I use half ground beef for texture. You can also use 100% ground beef which saves a lot of preparation time.
  • Leave out the clove. Too much can ruin the dish and it’s not worth the risk.
  • The beer and coffee aren’t really necessary but are nice to add some bitterness. You just need enough liquid of some sort. I use boxed beef broth instead of water.

I grew up with this kind of food.

culturefood
  2014-04-09 16:31 Z

There’s good fine dining in California’s Central Coast. Cayucos is one of those tiny California beach towns from the 50s. A few dumpy motels, a surf shop, restaurants with names like The Salty Seagull and The Rusty Pelican you’d only ever eat at because you’re on vacation in a beach town. But there’s something special and unique in Cayucos, the Cass House, and as the Michelin folks say it is vaut le voyage.

Chef Jensen Lorenzen and his crew are turning out phenomenal fine dining, as good as anything I’d expect to find at San Francisco’s top restaurants. They are serving only one option, a 14 course tasting menu of delicate little plates. With excellent (but laid back) service and a good wine list and a lovely room that only seats about 30 people.

The key thing here is the cooking works. The kitchen knows its business and is producing excellent creative food with technique but not silly gimmicks. My favorite dish was a dessert, a fennel-based gelée that was delicate, deeply flavored, with a bit of candied fennel as a crunch accent. So elegant and precise. The cauliflower “curds & whey” were also phenomenal, a rich risotto-like texture with a deep butter and cheese flavor. A heavy dish, it came after a very delicate dashi bouillon. The main course (I chose chicken) was a satisfying solid portion, keeping the whole meal from being a bit too precious and dainty. We were also very impressed at how they handled my friend’s near-vegan diet, deftly substituting coconut milk and the like for the dairy that would have been in half the dishes. (Elegant cooking without butter!) I admit I was concerned going in that the menu was too demanding, but Cass House executed incredibly well.

They’ve been doing fine dining for a couple of years but jumped full in to the tasting menu program this February. It’s ambitious and risky and one service a night at a reasonable $85 caps their business. My impression is they’re doing this because they love this kind of cooking, like being in control and preparing food with art in the way they want. I was glad to be along for the ride and hope to return.

culturefood
  2014-04-03 23:47 Z

Greetings from Thailand! Just on the way home. I have to be honest and say we didn’t love this part of our trip as much. Maybe we went to the wrong places?

Bangkok is an amazing modern city, with all the excitement and hassle that entails. It’s also crowded and dirty and at least for us, not so much fun as a tourist. The highlight was seeing the amazing temple Wat Pho, totally worth a visit. But famous entertainment areas like Patpong were lost on us; too crowded and sleazy. I’m sure folks have more fun in Bangkok than we did, but for us a couple of days was enough. As for dining, it got better once we got out of hotels. Queen of Curries was quite good: divey place by American standards, but friendly staff and delicious food. The Local was more interesting, strong fresh flavors and significantly more variety than we see in the US. I particularly liked the lemongrass salad with little dried shrimps and fried tiny fish, wrapped in betel leaf.

We had more fun in Chiang Mai, the medium sized city in the north. The Dhara Dhevi hotel was phenomenal: incredible hotel architecture, great food, terrific service. Our favorite experience was the hotel’s cooking class with market tour. Our temple tour was also interesting was thanks to a good guide. Riding elephants was not for me: certainly interesting and different but I’m not much for large animals.

So now we head home from a long successful trip to Bali, Singapore, and Thailand that my sweetie Ken arranged for us with help from our travel agent. Turns out to not be so hard to visit this part of the world, at least if you’re a little patient and don’t mind paying for high end service. Bali was definitely my favorite place of the three, I’m sure I’ll be back.

culturetravel
  2014-01-07 01:16 Z