Food

Istanbul Galata Tower

Eating Istanbul

I really thought I’d not get a holiday this year. But then it dawned on me, if I cut back from drinking 75 litres of Jack Daniels a week, I might be able to afford at least a couple of days, if I, you know, went full-on budget. Plus I might even remember what I did while I was there. So where to? Hmm. Somewhere slightly more challenging than Italy for the umpteenth time. Somewhere with a different culture. Somewhere to make me think I’d actually left the UK. What about Istanbul? There’s direct flights. There’s Turkish Delight. And there are cats. Oodles of them just wandering the streets, apparently. Perfect.

Normally I research the shit out of places before I go. After an initial couple of hours’ perusal told me that taxi drivers will most probably try to rip you off, there’s 14 million people (ugghh) and terrorists had set off a bomb outside one of the biggest tourist attractions that very day, I decided to stop reading. I also decided not to go to any top tourist attractions, but this was more about having an authentic experience , not silly, media induced fear, I swear.

Come travel day, we hadn’t even taken off before I knew I’d chosen well. I was surrounded with culture the second I squished myself into my seat; the man to my left stroked religious beads, the man on my right sat cross legged and chanted, other men prayed, women in veils outnumbered those without and there was a not unpleasant, but very distinctive, aroma of incense whenever someone in robes swished by me.

Then it all went to shit.

But let’s not focus on the bad things. Well, maybe just quickly – no power, no water, no air con and an unexpected September humidity that had me permanently looking like I’d just jumped into the Bosphorous. Oh and I had to actually punch a handsy a-hole before he understood that no, I did not want to go and make porno with him at 5am while waiting for my airport bus back home. I did say I wanted a challenge, right?

Despite the above, I’d picked a great area to stay in; Beyoglu. Mere steps from my shitty apartment was a lively local community. It bubbled away each day with cafes run by young, trendy twenty-somethings, a Borek shop (pastry stuffed with meat or cheese), a Pide shop (like a pizza), a ‘club’ where old men gathered to play cards and drink tea, a little corner store often run by a bunch of kids serving people between games of soccer and enough neighbourhood cats to keep any cat lady happy for weeks.

It was so nice, not even the Beyoglu hills bothered me, the many, many, 45 degree-angled, narrow, cobblestone lined hills. OK, that’s a lie. I’m betting high heels are not big sellers in Istanbul. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find Beyoglu is built up over a pyramid. A myriad of paths wind up to the top, shops along the way full of panting tourists trying to catch their breath by feigning interest in Turkish flag t-shirts and all-seeing-eye fridge magnets. That look of delight on everyone’s faces at the top is probably not from seeing the shiny shops of Istiklal Avenue, but because it’s finally, blissfully flat.

The heritage tram on Istiklal Avenue

Flat it may be, but Istiklal is a consumer promenade so long there’s a tram that runs from one end to the other, all day, back and forth, one little narrow tram swaying side to side, overloaded with all those shopping bags and weary shoppers.

I only stayed here long enough to see the famous ice cream sellers making fools of their customers with a deft, almost vaudevillian sleight of hand act. Buy an ice cream from them and try to remain cheerful while he hands you the cone, only to snatch it back at the last moment. Again and again he’ll trick you, to the cheers and ever building mirth of the gathering crowds. By about the twentieth time, see if you can keep your frustration and embarrassment in check and don’t want to punch him in the face. Such fun. (more…)

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A Day in Budapest Part 1 – a breakfast of porn; food porn and yep, the other porn

We stood in the rain outside a brown wooden door in Budapest’s District VII, scrambling to put on our waterproof jackets. I hadn’t wanted a day traipsing round tourist spots, ticking off monuments, palaces and bath houses. I wanted cooler than that. A cursory glance at Julia’s Facebook friends (that’s with a Y sound, like in eulogy, not a J, like in Roberts), mostly arty-farty twenty-something’s, and I knew Budapest had an alternative side. So far so good.

But I’d neglected to check the weather. I blamed this on the fact that Julia had been bragging about how lovely it had been for the past couple of weeks in Budapest and how she was was developing a suntan in May, not my own laziness and/or stupidity. So Julia had brought me her brother’s rain jacket for the day. It was going to be very hard to be cool when I was dressed as a dorky tourist, but as Julia said, at least I was now a dry, dorky tourist. I would have told me that I was never cool in the first place too, but unlike Australians, Hungarians’ first instincts are not to insult their friends as a form of bonding.

The door we stood next to, and the windows on either side of it, was boarded up with paper. Julia looked at the sign above our heads and translated for me.

‘Second Hand Sex Shop.”

I’m not sure what the international sign for ‘Ewww’ is, but I’m pretty sure our faces were making it. Even with the promise of commercial grade cleaning, neither of us would ever dream of buying someone’s used sex toys. So who would? Lulled by equal parts adventure, curiosity and disgust, we went in.

I guess I could have figured out the translation all by myself if I'd tried, couldn't I?

I guess I could have figured out the translation all by myself if I’d tried, couldn’t I?

Julia was perhaps the perfect guide for me that day. I’d been promised an insider’s guide to Budapest, the grungy, dirty, secret side. But when she said dirty, I honestly thought she meant the kind of dirt that goes with grunge, not the (some would say) filthy type one might find behind this door. (more…)

The Art of Culinary Seduction: two close shaves in southern Italy

My first sighting of Vesuvius turned out to be quite the Kodak moment

My first sighting of Vesuvius turned out to be quite the Kodak moment

A few years ago, I found myself sad and alone in Naples. Exactly why I was sad and alone is not the story here, but you should know the previous day I had waltzed into a hairdresser’s, and after much frenzied hand gesticulation, convinced the horrified staff to shave my head.

I was staying at the eccentric B&B Morelli 49, in the almost too posh for me Chiaia district. The owner Massimo spoke no English and I spoke almost no Italian. Unable to communicate with words, the 80’s memorabilia proudly decorating all of his rooms nevertheless meant we had the unspoken connection of childhoods awash with shoulder pads, fingerless gloves and Madonna. I had been filling my days visiting nearby Pompeii, Sorrento and Positano in an attempt to dodge the surprising May heat. But come early evening, I wandered Napoli’s streets searching for somewhere to eat.

Hunger ritually struck at 6pm, but back then I didn’t know Italian restaurants open late. So I’d sit on a park bench in the bayside Villa Communale, or on the steps of the Commune di Napoli in the Piazza Del Plebiscito. I’d watch Neapolitans going about their ritual evening walk, la passeggiata, and kids playing soccer while parents gossiped nearby. Most nights I’d make do with a take away arancini al ragu or a slice of pizza.

Ah, pizza. After five centuries of making it, Naples certainly knows what it’s doing. But delicious as it was, I craved something more.

Some people will tell you the way to discover fantastic food abroad is simply to follow the locals. Of course, if you follow Londoners, you’re likely to end up with a box of fried chicken or a sandwich and a packet of crisps, so it’s not exactly foolproof. Being hours too early each night for such discoveries in Naples, the smell of Massimo’s freshly baked breakfast cakes convinced me to try him for ideas instead. The next day I cornered him in the kitchen and mimed munching on my fingers, asking “mun-gee-ah-ray?” He winced, then gave me the business card of Pizza Margherita, which was just a short walk away along Via Riviera di Chiaia. Massimo insisted it was better than the more famous Pizzeria Brandi (which ironically invented Margherita Pizza in 1889).

As you can tell, our hand gestures had reached quite an advanced level by then. (more…)

Food, glorious (Italian) food

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As I mentioned in my last post, before I went to Puglia in May I was fortunate to make contact with Caroline Edwards, advocate/promoter/endorser of all things worth knowing in Puglia. Caroline took me along to a tasting session with a company in Martina Franca called Selecto, and I was able to sample some of Puglia’s scrummy local products.

Selecto take the best local delicacies, source the best producers of those delicacies in all of Puglia, then package them under the brands Tebamia (for supplying restaurants and retailers) and Deapulia (for online orders). If you’re already familiar with Puglian food, maybe you’ve long wished for another taste of hard to find cheeses like cacciocavallo, provolone or peccorino. Or maybe you dream about peperonettto (peppers stuffed with tuna), soppressata (spicy sausage) or confettura di cipolla rossa (red onion jam). Or maybe you just remember that you had some of the best wine of your life in Puglia. Well, even though I’m sure a quick trip to Italy to stock up would be lovely, you don’t have to get on a plane to taste them again because Selecto deliver worldwide. All hail the wonders of the internet!

And if you just happen to be in Puglia right now, get in contact with them and arrange a visit to their shop in Martina Franca. You won’t be able to resist making a purchase or two, so best bring something to take them home in. An empty suitcase should just about do it.

If mere words aren’t enough to tempt you, here’s some pictures I took:

Peperonetto…

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bite sized Peperonetto…

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The quality of the packaging makes it a perfect gift too (if you can bare to share)…

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Pasticciotto – good things come to those who wait… and speak Italian.

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What would a trip to Italy be without a new, delicious food discovery? Happily for me (not so happy for my waist line), my recent trip to Puglia unearthed a few. Following on from the delights of Burrata and La Tana Del Lupo, I made it my mission to track down some Pasticciotto. Since its birthplace just happened to be in the very town I was staying, Galatina, my intrepid culinary detective work was put into use for all of about a hundred meters before I found it on Via Emanuele, a street bordering the old town’s Piazza San Pietro.

Traditionally, Pasticciotto was a small cake filled with egg custard(see pic above), but variations exist today such as lemon or chocolate cream, or the dark chocolate covered, jam and almond paste filled Fruttone. It is thought to have been invented  in 1745 by Nicola Ascalone and today his family own Galatina’s Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone.

Despite there being plates of pastries on display in the window, when I visited late one afternoon I thought the pasticceria might be closed. The door was shut, the curtains were drawn and even when I walked in there were no pastries lining shelves or display cabinets bursting with treats to choose from. There were just two rotund men sitting at the lone table, munching through a plate of small cakes. As I waited, beginning to wonder if I’d just barged into someone’s house – albeit a house with a front room that looked suspiciously like a shop – trays full of cakey delights were eventually brought out from the rear of the shop and, as is the Italian way, fastidiously wrapped with decorative paper and a ribbon.

The interior of Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone is an art-deco lovers’ dream. There’s black and white checkered floor tiles, dark red walls covered with small, tiled mirrors and a white marble counter stretching the length of the shop, the only thing on it being an ancient cash register with a handle on the side that has to be spun to open the drawer below.

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Dinner with the Galatina Wolf

la tana del lupo

Put your hand up if you’ve heard this one before – the world is a much smaller place than it used to be.Well pardon the cliche, but yes it is. Regular world travel was once only for the uber-rich, the airline crew who serve them, and the cruise ship oldies who use the last of their pension circumnavigating the globe until their number comes up. These days, the world is open to so many more of us, and we do it so often, a new breed of fussy well informed travel connoiseurs has arisen. These days, we can spot a tourist trap at a hundred paces, and we do all we can to unearth that illusive ‘authentic’ travel experience. 

In Italy, for me, these kinds of experiences can often be found in the food (although even Italy has its share of tourist traps where food is concerned). I strive to have at least one authentic food experience each trip to The Boot. This time, in Galatina, it was dinner with a wolf.

Like most of the best things in life, Trattoria La Tana Del Lupo (Lair of the Wolf) is easy to find if you know where to look. Hidden down a small street off the main Piazza San Pietro, the ‘dining room’ consists of a mere four tables. Sitting down you’ll soon realise you’re actually in the front room of the house of two people I’m going to name Mama and Papa – both out of affection and because I forgot to ask their names. Papa serves as Maitre’d while Mama cooks. If you’re facing the right way,you can observe Mama through an open door to the kitchen. You can also observe an increasingly jovial Papa as he pours more wine for his guests and adheres to the “one for them, one for me” rule. (more…)