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Category: travel

(Re)Discovering Rota, Spain & Costa Ballena {Arranque Roteño}

If someone would’ve told me years ago that Rota was worthy of being considered an international tourist destination, I probably would’ve looked at them with incredulity. It never occurred to me during all those years going to school on the Rota Naval Base that Rota was anything more than a little, sleepy agricultural and fishing town, situated in a strategic location for the Spanish and American military and the neighbour of my little Chipiona. Of course, I knew there was some sort of history there seeped in the stones of the old castle, in the walls of the main church, and in the rocks of the corrales. But from kindergarten through high school, I never really gave it much thought.

Rota for me, like for many other kids who grew up with me, was a beach playground and a place to go bar-hopping and disco dancing with friends. (Yes, I actually said disco.) And Costa Ballena, now a golf and residential resort, was where I used to hang out on a farm that belonged to family friends. A large portion of the land used for the golf course and the resort belonged to a cousin of the former King of Spain from the House of Orleans-Borbón. The rest of the land belonged to this family, who are our friends. On these grounds, I used to go horse-back riding, play in the hay stacks, and catch erizos de mar (sea urchins), which we would cut up right there on the beach and eat raw with a squirt of lemon juice.

After leaving Spain in 1997, it was many years before I came back to visit the area. In fact, the last time I went to our friends’ farm, I got lost because the roads had ‘changed on me’! Part of their farm remains the same as when I used to hop inside the pigsty to pet piglets and carefully feed the mommies or walk amongst the cows in the stable. I used to also feed the geese, although I was terrified of them because I knew their bites could hurt. And it was from this farm that I got my beloved little Marilyn, the bunny rabbit who was my pet until she grew into too much of a nuisance to have at home and we had to bring her back there. Our friend Francisco bit off the top of one of her ears so that we could tell her apart from the rest of the bunnies when I would visit. It turned out that the tiny act of cruelty had been unnecessary since little Marilyn used to come hopping to see me as soon as she heard my voice calling out her name. I don’t know what ended up happening to her.. or maybe it’s better than I don’t remember. But Luisa and Juan’s farm was my animal haven growing up. And Francisco’s older brothers were probably my brother’s first local friends.

So maybe you can imagine my astonishment when I now visit Rota and Costa Ballena and find an entirely different world from what my memory holds true. But just like when the Americans ‘landed’ in Spain and the Base was opened in 1953, the changes that come with this development progress have been more than positive for the Villa de Rota and Costa Ballena.

A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of rediscovering Rota at the hand of Descubre Rota, Rota’s tourism office. I was invited on a blog trip by my good friend Teresa, who pens the travel blog El Faro de la Jument and is one of the original members of the Andalucia Travel Bloggers Association.

I invite you to read on, to get acquainted (or reacquainted for some) with this lovely seaside town, maybe learn a few not-so-well-known facts, and discover Costa Ballena with me.

The Necropolis. Long before the Americans arrived in Rota, even before the Spanish Conquistadores landed in what is now the Dominican Republic to claim the discovery of the Americas for Spain, way long before then, there were other peoples who made this land their land. Who knows where they came from, maybe Northern Africa, or maybe they were the Phoenicians who sailed from the eastern most regions of the Mediterranean Sea and settled in the Iberian Peninsula. Whoever they were, they lived and died here. And some of them built a necropolis sometime during the Atlantic Bronze Age. During the construction of the Naval Base (which is actually a Spanish military base), the necropolis was discovered. It is the oldest archeological find in Rota; and because the the building of the Base had to continue, the artifacts were relocated. Some can now be seen at the Rota City Hall, inside the Castillo de Luna.

Corrales de Pesca. For a long time, it was thought that the Phoenicians – those savvy, commercial, sea-faring people –  had been the designers of the fishing corrals that shape the Rota and Chipiona coastline. But it seems like historians cannot agree on the origins of this sustainable form of fishing. So, although they are ancient, we cannot discern whether we should be thankful to the Phoenicians, the Romans, or the Moors for creating a way of life that continues to this day. Between Rota and Chipiona, there are eight corrales still in existence. To-day, they have been declared as a natural monument, the first in Andalusia; and hence they are now also protected. Many species of fish and mollusks live inside the walls and many others find their way in when the tide is high and get trapped when the tide recedes. The corrals were made with sandstone and lumachelle, a type of limestone containing fragments of shells and fossilized animals, which is commonly found in the area. It is not unusual to see house façades in Rota and Chipiona decorated with piedra ostionera, which is local name for the lumachelle. In fact, our former house in Chipiona has an outside zocalo made of piedra ostionera. One can learn more about this type of aqua-culture and visit the corrales by booking a guided tour with the tourism office of Rota.

Castillo de Luna. Rota’s more modern history is closely linked to that of Moorish Andalusia and the Christian Reconquest of Spain. Rota’s castle was first constructed on top of the remnants of a Moorish Ribat, which gave the town its Moorish name Rabeta Ruta. In 1297, after the Moors have been expelled from Spain, King Fernando IV of Castille grants all the lands between the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete rivers to Don Alfonso Pérez de Guzman, otherwise known as Guzman el Bueno, for his heroic efforts defending the city of Tarifa in the name of the Crown. These lands are comprised of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chipiona, and Rota, where Guzman erects his castle and settles. A few years later, in 1303, Guzman’s daughter marries a Ponce de León and becomes part of the Spanish royal family. As her dowry, she is given the entire Villa de Rota, including of course the castle. In 1477, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, better known as the Reyes Católicos and as the unifiers of Spain, visited Andalusia and stayed at the Castillo de Luna. Since then, the castle has passed through various hands and has served various functions, from being the family seat of the Casa de Arcos, to being the summer home of the Marquis of San Marcial (who purchased it for 15,000 pesetas in 1909), to housing a school and hospital owned by the “Marquis of Villapesadilla” (who purchased it for 200,000 pesetas in 1943). In 1982, the religious community in charge of managing the school and the hospital abandons the building and it falls into disrepair. In 1999, after 11 years of renovation, it reopens it doors as the municipal palace. Today it houses the City Hall of Rota and the Office of Tourism. The Castillo de Luna can be visited by booking a guided tour at the tourism office inside.

Muralla. The remnants of the wall that surrounded the town at one time are still standing and visible facing the municipal marina, not too far from the central market, facing Calle Pasadilla. One could almost miss noticing the wall, if it weren’t for a small sign on the side facing the street. The town has planned to open a walking street alongside so it can be properly enjoyed. In the meantime, one can view it from behind a metal gate of sorts. But it’s definitely worth a stop and a look. The wall was constructed with lumechella, the same type of limestone used for the corrales and the many façades one sees in the town of Rota. The old wall used to separate the town and farms of Rota from the port and is thought to have been first constructed by the Tartessos. But it’s also been said that it could date from the 12th or 13th century making it Medieval and probably built by the Moors

Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de la O. The day we visited Rota, there was a wedding at the Parish Church of Our Lady of the O. Roteños love to get married here, as it’s a very pretty venue; and the palmtree-lined plaza, which borders with one of the stone walls of the castle, creates a beautiful and romantic backdrop for any picture. One of my friends from high school got married here and I’ve been inside numerous times for various events. But I had never seen it from above as on this trip. One can visit the castle and walk on the rooftops, which provide an excellent vantage point of the church’s plaza, the Rota lighthouse, and the iridescent turquoise waters and white sand beaches. The construction of the parish church was finalised in 1537, during the reign of Emperor Charles I. The Ponce de León family paid for the building, which has been an icon of Rota ever since. Inside one can see various architectural styles ranging from Gothic, to Isabelline, to Plateresque and Baroque. Also inside, one can find the patron saint of Rota, Our Lady of the Rosary, whose festivities are celebrated in Rota in October.

Torre de la Merced. This tower is the only architectural remains of the old convent of La Merced, which had been founded by Don Rodrigo Ponce de León in the 17th century. With its brilliantly coloured blue and white tiles, it’s clearly visible from many parts of town and is another cherished symbol of Rota.

Las Playas & La Bandera Azul. Now that we’ve travelled through some of Rota’s most important history, let’s not kid ourselves. Most people today, including the Americans from the Base, come to enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. Rota is surrounded by 16 long kilometers of beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that look like the Caribbean. From the urban beaches of El Rompidillo (old Garbage Beach to many of my friends) and la Costilla (the most famous and the one that brings back cherished adolescent memories) to the more ‘wild’ El Puntalillo and Punta Candor, which are protected by the pinewood forests, Rota’s coastline is a paradise for beach-goers, swimmers, and wind-surfers. Rota’s clean waters and excellent beaches are usually awarded every year la bandera azul (blue flag) by the European Foundation of Environmental Education. Beaches and marinas that offer a series of environmental conditions and whose infrastructure and installations meet certain standards are distinguished with this prestigious award. This year, Rota’s beaches and marina have been bestowed with a total of ten blue flags!

El Pinar. If there is one characteristic feature of the southern Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, from Spain to Portugal, it’s the forests of the pino piñonero, or the pine nut pine tree. These pine trees grow along the coast and protect the beaches and the sand dunes typical of the region. Rota’s pinar is part of the Natural Park of the Almadraba and has a unique micro-climate, offering a reprieve from the heat during the summer months and protection from the winds coming off of the Atlantic. One can walk or bike through the park along the many walkways made of wood and breathe in the pine-scented fresh air. And if one is lucky, one could find a pinecone filled with pine nuts to take home and eat. My friends, cousins, and I used to go pinecone gathering in the pinar when we were young. We would also pick up palmichas (the fruit of the palmito – Chamaerops humilis – a palm-like plant that grows at the foot of the pine trees in the forests). The palmichas we usually ate in situ under the shade of the pine trees, savouring the fresh, earthy flavours of the white fruit, after cutting off the green leaves with a sharp knife. Needless to say, we were usually accompanied by adults. The pine cones on the other hand we could gather on our own, although we had to take them home to enjoy. Once home, we roasted them in the fire place, letting the sweet aroma permeate the house and fueling our anticipation of enjoying the little cream-coloured nuts, which we could only access after breaking each shell one by one.

Camino Natural Vía Verde De Rota. Rota is a haven for outdoor sports, from swimming, to wind-surfing to horse-back riding, to golfing, to cycling. The town has recuperated the old train tracks that used to go from El Puerto de Santa Maria to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has converted them into a green way for cyclists. Within the municipality of Rota, one can enjoy 7,8 kilometers of this green way. By the way, rental bikes are available in Rota and Costa Ballena at the Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena from Bicicletas Valdes

Intervenciones por RotaLiterally translated as “Interventions Around Rota”, this initiative founded by a few local artists is very unique. Their mission is to enhance the town with art in unexpected places at unexpected times. The art is permanent, but when it will appear on the streets, the façades of houses, or on any given wall is totally a surprise for the townsfolk. It’s street art in a sophisticated and serendipitous format. We got a tour of all the “interventions” around town. They all have one common denominator: they represent a part of Rota life and intend to make the viewer think deeper. There are ceramic pumpkins, giant snails, two summer lovers separated, a representation of the different people that have made up Rota, a fishing boat filled with rocks (to represent all the refugee children crossing the Mediterranean), and even a street named “bésame en esta esquina” (kiss me on this corner). I dare you to find all 20 of them!

Costa Ballena & Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club. The Whale Coast takes its name from the beach called Playa Ballena, who in turn was named by fishermen who used to tell a story about what was probably a stranded whale. Legend has it that there was an old whale who circled the world in search of the most beautiful beach and chose these waters off the coast between Rota and Chipiona as its sanctuary. From time to time, whales and other cetaceans have been stranded along these coasts, but none other has been so influential. Costa Ballena, whose lands as I mentioned in the beginning belonged to a family who are our friends and the Duke of Orleans-Borbón, is now a touristic complex and golf course.

Unlike other golf courses in Spain, Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club was first built as a golf course, and later surrounded by housing and the rest of the complex. The course has 27 championship holes, a 9 hole par3 course, and the best practice facility in Europe according the the PGA of Sweden. The Club was built in 1995 with Spanish Masters champion José María Olazábal as the head of design for golf company Integral Golf Design. The course, which is all Bermuda grass, officially opened its doors in 1997 “to house all levels of competition, starting with the European Tour Second Stage Qualifying”. The Cuadrangular Internationals at Costa Ballena, King’s Cup, and Queen’s Cup have been contested here; and it is the official training base for National Teams during the winter months.

Friends of my father play golf at Costa Ballena on a regular basis; and my father played a couple of times before we left Spain. But I had never even stepped foot inside the complex until the other day. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a mini-paradise that reminds me of parts of the coast of Málaga, which has traditionally been the jet-set coast par excellence. It has a beautiful park, with waterfall and lakes included, a 4-kilometer long strand of white sand beach, 4 hotels (Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena and Hotel Playa Ballena have great views of the course), bars, restaurants, pubs, and a number of beautiful housing complexes. One could live or stay at Costa Ballena and never have to leave … but then one wouldn’t delight in all the pleasures the Villa de Rota has to offer …

Food & Wine. For a food blog, I couldn’t possible neglect one of the great pleasures of life, now could I? Visiting or living in Rota can be a delight for all senses, and for the palate there is plenty to discover.

Rota is known for its fresh, wild caught seafood, its succulent tomatoes, its calabaza roteña (a native pumpkin variety), and other fresh produce. After all, this town has always been known for its fishing and agriculture, two trades that thankfully have not been lost to progress.

There is an old-timer and a new-kid-on-the-block I would like to highlight and which we had the privilege of visiting on our tour.

Bodegas El Gato. Rota’s oldest winery. It turns out I’ve walked by this winery probably a thousand times, and yet I had never noticed it before. When the Americans arrived in the 1950s, the lands where the Base is located were all farms. Many of these farms were vineyards, some of which cultivated the local grape variety Tintilla. Tintilla is a small, purple grape, from which the sweet, syrupy varietal Tintilla wine is made.

Juan Martínez Martín-Niño, colloquially called “El Gato”, used to have a vineyard on the lands of the Base, where he only grew Tintilla grapes. When the lands were expropriated by the Spanish government, Juan found himself without his vineyard and without a job. Instead of abandoning his profession and passion however, he asked his father to help plant a small farm he had in town with the same grapes. Little by little, Juan’s vineyard grew and eventually in 1957, he opened up the winery, as the only producer of Tintilla wines. It wasn’t all a bed of roses nonetheless, and he had to supplement his income as a taxi driver – a profession that thrived thanks to the Base – for a number of years, until the winery took off.

Today, Juan is one of the few producers of Tintilla wine, a local art form that could’ve been lost if it had not been for his tenacity and perseverance. In his winery, several generations of his family and friends – who are considered extended family – work to keep sustaining this craft. They produce other wines as well, many of which are organic, all are aged in their bodegas, and some of which are still bottled artsinally by hand!

The wines can be purchased directly at the bodega; and they also offer guided tours in English, wine tastings, and flamenco shows. It’s worth a visit and a taste!

El Bucarito. For someone like me, El Bucarito is pure bliss. Where else could I visit an old, working farm, pet newborn kids, play with the mommy goats, watch black-hooved Spanish pigs happily romp around in their sty, have a close up stare down with a golden foal who was a little too timid to let me pet him, and eat organic, raw goat’s cheese and organic, salt cured meats? At El Bucarito, I was transported to my childhood within moments of arriving.

But there’s more to the story and this quaint farm, whose owners started this venture only about 20 years ago with the mission to produce artisanal cheeses in the heart of the Rota farmland. It’s a sustainable, organic farm that makes a variety of cheeses, most of which are raw, with a few of them made from pasteurised milk. They grow Florida goats, Iberico pigs, and horses and donkeys. The old, original farmhouse has been renovated and they offer buffet-style breakfasts, children’s parties, and cheese and cured meat tastings. They also have mini classes on how to make one’s own cheese. It’s a true delight for all ages, and most especially for one’s taste buds.

Back in the town of Rota, there are more places to shop and eat, too many to name in one blog post. But El Mercado de Abastos (the local market) is worth a visit, with its mixture of food stalls and bars (restaurants). We stopped there for a break on our tour and ate some salty, crunchy chicharrones (pork cracklings), sampled some cheeses from Dora’s shop (all organic and raw), and tasted some local, white wines.

The last leg of our weekend was at the Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería, an educational working farm. Rota farmers used to be called mayetos because they harvested their produce and brought it to market in the month of May, an entire month earlier than most in the region of Jerez. It was an agrarian way of life, that probably originated during Moorish times, when in the 15th century Rota is segregated from Chipiona and becomes its own town. Farmers were given small parcels of land, a choza (thatch-roofed house), and an animal, in return for preserving and exploiting the land as mayetos. The produce they cultivated and harvested became synonymous with Rota. The calabaza roteña (Rota pumpkin), the juicy, red tomato roteño, the green cuerno cabra peppers, the Spanish melon, and the local watermelon were prized produce in the markets of the region. They still are to this day, even as far as Sevilla.

The less fortunate mayetos lived in thatch-roofed wooden huts, whilst those with a little more money could afford a thatch-roofed house made of more sturdy materials. They worked from sunrise to sunset, nurturing and caring for their farmlands with constant love and attention. In addition to this complete dedication to their land, there are a few other factors that aided the mayetos to be able to bring their produce to market earlier than most. The long hours of sunlight, the moderate climate, their peculiar form of irrigation, and an earth rich in silica aided these agriculturists as much as the many hours they spent bent over the fields. Because the land is not very fertile and the silica is very permeable, they watered their carefully tilled liños (rows) by only wetting the surface of the ground and repeating this various times during the day. They carried the water in pointy jarras de barro (clay jugs) that are called jarras de riego.  The mayetos were known for spending most of the day bent over; and many suffered from a deviated column in old age. In the area, this health issue is known as anquilosis vertebral roteña, which goes to show how prevalent it was amongst these farmers from Rota.

It was pure permaculture farming, but with a life full of hardships that we cannot romanticise today. However, The Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería is trying to ensure this important part of Rota’s history is not lost, that we learn from it, and learn how to collaborate with our environment for the benefit of all of us, including Mother Earth.

Arranque Roteño

From this way of life, a traditional cuisine developed that is still enjoyed today. One of the most iconic dishes known almost exclusively in Rota is arranque roteño, which has a similar base as gazpacho andaluz or salmorejo. This dish, although not really a soup like the gazpacho or a thicker sauce like the salmorejo, is made with tomatoes del tiempo (seasonal fruit), pimientos de cuerno de cabra, garlic, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and bread. For the bread you can use gluten-free bread, just make sure if it’s homemade that it is has a neutral flavour like regular bread has. The following recipe was shared by Pilar Ruiz Rodriguez-Rubio, who has her own local food blog, Aprendiendo a Cocinar, where she cooks with her mother, Cristina, and shares traditional recipes from Rota. (I met Pilar during the weekend, since she works at the Rota Office of Tourism; as serendipity would have it, she’s a good friend of a good friend of mine!)

You’ll need a lebrillo (or something similar in which to make the arranque) and pestle-like instrument. This can also be made in a food processor, but it won’t be as traditional, and the flavour may vary somewhat.

Ingredients

1 kilo red tomatoes, preferably of the plum variety (not overly ripe), peeled and roughly chopped
2 or 3 green peppers, preferably of the cuerno de cabra variety (or Roman in the US), torn by hand into small pieces
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
Spanish or French bread, one telera or about 1/2 kilo
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste

Method

In the lebrillo or mixing dish, using the pestle, crush the peppers, the garlic, and some sea salt. When the peppers are throughly mashed, add the tomatoes. Continuing mashing and mixing until you achieve a homogenous, smooth texture.

Start adding the bread, broken up in small chunks, and continuing mashing. Little by little, add the EVOO to soften up the mixture and the desired consistency* is achieved. Add more sea salt, to taste if necessary.

*The type of bread used is typically a telera, which is a golden loaf of bread, very crusty on the outside with a dry migajón or inside crumb. It can be found in Spanish bread shops and usually weighs about 1/2 kilo. The desired consistency or texture of this dish is much, much thicker than gazpacho (which is really a soup). The arranque is almost like a thick paste and it is eaten with pieces of raw onion or raw peppers used as spoons.

Buen provecho!

The Rekindled Friendship of A Dreamer in Paris {And Blanquette de Poulet à l’Ancienne}

Foreword, from La La Land

My aunt used to live in Paris
 
I remember, she used to come home and tell us these stories about being abroad

And I remember she told us that she jumped into the river once, barefoot

She smiled
Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine

The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing

But said she would do it again
Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see

Prologue, A Visit 13-Years in the Making 

Sometime in 2016…

“We’ve had twelve years of foreplay; it’s about time we see each other, don’t you think?”

Months later …

“Happy new year to you too. I wish you a happier 2017 than 2016. I also wish you the opportunity to travel to Paris!”

Some days later …

“Are you free on the weekend of …. ?”

“I am no longer free because you are coming?” (Isn’t that just the most perfect line for a story?…)

Day One, Uneaten Croissants in the 16th 

“It’s good to have you finally here.” And somewhere in his greeting, I believe he mentions the twelve years of foreplay again.

I look at him, and a smile runs away from my face. His audacity has always humoured me. We’ve been nothing more than just friends, but he’s invariably poking in a bit of picaresque when he can, which is so typically French. He was learning back on his futon, looking at me through mischievous eyes. His gaze was intense, provocative, sexy, and slightly languid, like Paris itself one could say.

I’ve never been in this apartment before but somehow it seems familiar… I think I’ve actually dreamt about being here. And I have divined where the expansive, bright window to the street is. I recall tip-toeing to peak out and take a glimpse of the marvelous city outside.

I walk over to the window now, open it, and look out. The air is brisk and pleasant. It’s early Saturday morning and the street is still quiet. I have just landed a couple of hours before, more or less at the same time that the terrorist attack took place at the other airport, I learn from my friend.

As if daring me not to stare straight at it, beaming right at me is one of those ornate 19th century, quintessentially Parisian buildings, the kind one sees in postcards and illustrations, which My Little Paris is known for. The pretty rooftop seems to be calling out to come crawl up onto it with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a good book or a fashion magazine in the other. I imagine myself sitting up there and wasting the day away, wistfully enjoying the grey skies and watching Parisians pass by down below, being part of the city yet being detached from it as well. I cannot help myself and I gawk at the façade, trying to get a glimpse into each and every window within my view, guessing how people are coming back to life today, what dreams they may have, what adventurous plans they will engage in, or simply what their daily routine might look like today … things that maybe in Paris may seem a little less mundane … and that on this day they might share with me, the unobtrusive observer.

I reluctantly pull myself away from the scene and tip-toe, stretching to see what lies ahead to the right. I know what’s there – my friend has sent me pictures. But even so, oh my! To have this as one’s daily view is quite impressive. I wonder if I could ever be blasé about it…. la Tour Eiffel feels close enough to touch with my fingertips. She beckons me; and if it weren’t because it’s hard to stand there leaning out of the window, I could just dillydally here all day with the fresh breeze in my face and Paris below my feet, looking at her, conjuring up enough day dreams to fill a book.

“My neighbors and I respect one another.” My thoughts are abruptly interrupted and come to a screeching halt. Opps..he must have noticed my lingering observation of the building across the street.

Slightly embarrassed, but not wanting to show it, I enquire, “And what does that mean?”

“Oh, you know, like in New York. One doesn’t look into someone else’s windows.” The French don’t beat around the bush, do they? By the way, if you’re interested, there’s an intriguing book, titled Ventanas de Manhattan, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, which is precisely about the all the different lives “hiding” behind the windows of New York. 

As my friend keeps talking, my mind wanders to East 81st Street. A lot of things have happened since we shared the same address. I got married and divorced. Both my parents have passed away. I’ve moved from the US to Europe, back to the US, and then back to Europe. I am not the same person who moved to NYC to become independent.

I look at him. He now has longer hair. It suits his eccentric personality and somehow brings out his blue eyes… Back in that other cosmopolitan city, we both had lived on the same floor. I try to remember how we met. My first thought is that it must have been in the elevator…but that would be too cliché for us… no, I correct myself, it was one day as he was taking clothes to the dry cleaners across the street and I was arriving home. Now I can recall his face, his flirty smile, and how he stopped me to chat with him and made me laugh as he kept the door open for me. That chance encounter lead to a friendship; and I remember being entranced by our philosophical conversations. And now, here I was sitting in his Paris apartment, half a world across the globe, almost thirteen years later.

He’s a teacher now. We were both in finance back then. The role befits him like a smooth, pliable glove. His deep voice – something I did not remember – is sensual. No wonder his female students all have crushes on him. There’s a only a trace of an accent, but one would never say it’s French. His English is impeccable, as it should be for an English teacher. Yet, he cannot be more Parisian. His family has lived here for generations. His great-grandfather made the lamps of the Pont Alexandre III. You can see them when facing the Grand Palais from the Quai d’Orsay. I won’t share which side, but they are there. Or so he tells me.

In my little studio on the Upper East Side, he would pop over unannounced all the time. We had a common friend, another neighbour, who took his cue and also came over unexpectedly often. Kimmie and her little black dog, Lulu, were also our companions.

At first, it flustered me a bit; but I later grew used to it and enjoyed having both or just one of them over. I’ve always wanted those types of friends à la-Briget-Jones-Diary or like those depicted in Love Actually that say what they think, do things impulsively – like coming over on a whim, making themselves right at home – and with whom we build bonds that are unbreakable even if we disagree, especially if we disagree.

Back then, he and I would sit on my futon for hours, talking. He was going through a crisis that eventually lead him back home, to Paris, and to his dream job. We used to also go out on the town, although less frequently. One of my last memories of us was at a bar with a French couple, friends of his who were visiting the city, and my Taiwanese friend from my MBA program, who had been visiting me. I had had on a bright, chartreuse green sweater and tight, bell-bottom jeans. I remember the bar we were in, some tucked-away gaunt on the Upper East Side; it was dark with red walls and we were the only people there, but we had philosophised the night away, trying to fix the world I’m sure…

“So, I’m thinking we don’t eat breakfast at this point and wait it out for lunch, which by French standards is not too long from now.”

I’m brought back from my reverie from another world, another life. “Sure, sounds great.”

The croissants and pastries that he had purchased for us remain on the glass coffee table untouched. By now, I’m sipping a warm cup of coffee with milk to keep me alert – he has had to rush down and cross the street to the corner shop to purchase the milk for me. I’m famished, but I’d rather wait for a hearty lunch than make do with a typical flaky and unsatisfying, French breakfast, about which I’m not keen at all and would cause my blood sugar to go up unnecessarily.

We continue to chat, a little uneasy at first after all these years, although we’ve never really lost touch. As the conversation progresses, it starts to get fluid and comfortable; yet, there’s an underlying current of excitement as we get to know each other all over again. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the fact that I’m back in Paris in a real Parisian apartment.

He calls the restaurant, the little bistro that he’s been patronising since he was a toddler with his family he tells me, and makes a reservation for half past twelve.

“What plans do you have, what would you like to see or do?” he asks.

“I don’t care, I just want to walk the streets of Paris, eat good food, and be a local. Plus, I’m here to see you.”

“Good then. Let’s go.”

Le Scheffer is perfectly charming, with a bunch of tiny, square tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There’s almost no room between table and table, but everyone seems to somehow manage to get in and sit down without knocking anything over or bumping into one another. On the walls, there are art-deco posters with scenes of Paris life or famous artsy Parisians.

We’re a little early for the French lunch crowd. But slowly it starts to fill up with couples, older ladies, and elegant gentlemen. They know him well here; so we are warmly greeted, and it feels cozy. I decide I could eat here every day.

Before looking at the menu, we order a bottle of red wine; neither of us are connoisseurs but it turns out to be a great combination of body and flavour, with no acidic after taste, and perfect for our meal selections. The waitress cannot figure out if she should give me the menu in English or French, as I keep confusing her by addressing her in some French and talking to my friend in English. She finally settles on the French version, while I preorder some escargots as an entrée. I’ve been longing for them since the last time I was in France a couple of years ago. On every single trip to or through France, it’s my must-have dish, whether they are in season or not. I chose a duck confit as my plat principal; and my friend orders a salade de fromage and les côtes d’agneau (the dish of the day).

“You know, in New York, there’s a bar dedicated to Josephine?” I say, as I look up to the poster of Josephine Baker hanging on the wall to the left behind him.

He looks back and remarks, “Ah, yes, that Josephine.” (What other Josephine could I be talking about? … Like there’s another one in French- pop – history, right?)

“I used to go to it all the time. It is on 42nd Street. It’s owned by Jean-Claude Baker, ‘the thirteenth of her adopted Baker’s dozen’,” I try to enlighten him, but our conversation quickly changes subject as we are trying to catch up on all the things we’ve missed these past thirteen years.

We bring each other up to date from our chance meeting in 2004 to to-day; we cover my parents’ untimely deaths, my complicated life with my ex-husband, the existential crisis he was going through when we met, and his now content life as an almost-forty-year-old bachelor in Paris. I begin to feel like not a day has gone by since we last saw each other and like I’ve always been part of the scene at this little neighbourhood bistro.

“What’s the name of the coffee with milk that the French order after lunch?” I know it’s not a café au lait. That’s a mayor faux-pas in France.

We each order a noisette to finish off our meal, while we linger at our table a little longer. The restaurant is now packed with couples and groups of three or four, all involved in lively conversations. I’m falling in love. With Paris. And with life. There’s not quite another place in the world where I could feel like this, this content to be alive. At least, not today.

“You know, I wanted to go to the Sorbonne when I was young,” I say. “An old friend of my parents’, who had lived through World War II had studied there. He would tell me magical stories of Paris and his university life. And he used to fuel my dreams of living here.”

(Roger and I had been on a first-name basis, although over 60 years separated us. I have always loved talking with the elderly, as their stories – of bygone eras that are brought to life and become palpable through their memories – are fascinating to me. Roger was a tiny, old man with white hair when he came into my life. His wife, Maria, a friend of my mother’s, was a lawyer with an aristocratic background, much younger but just as erudite as her husband. Her tales, however, were nowhere as captivating as his. I remember him fondly, wrapped up in cloud of sweet smoke coming off his pipe, and telling me stories on our back patio at home in Chipiona. Paris back then seemed a million miles away, but as he talked about the second Great War, most of which he had spent in France, of sipping coffee on the sidewalk of a Parisian cafe, of listening to Marlene Dietrich sing Lily Marleen, of walking amongst the artists in Montmartre, of Manet, Picasso, of the Louvre…and of the Sorbonne, I had been transported to the grand avenues, I had envisioned myself elegantly dressed, spending hours at a little cafe, sipping coffee whilst sitting on a wickered, bistro chair, I had dreamt of walking the hallways of the university with my paint brushes in my case….)

“What happened, why didn’t you come?”

“I think I was too young and too scared to move away from home back then.”

“You’re still in time to do this. And most importantly, you’re free to do so.” He continued, “Why not live your dream? Why not study at the Sorbonne and live here?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to study art now. I want to pursue other goals I think…”

Well maybe we can convince you to move here, I believe he said. Or maybe I imagined he voiced that. If the weekend continues like this, Paris, I think to myself, doesn’t have to work too hard to persuade me.

“Are you ready to go?” I nodded. “L’addition s’il vous plaît,” he told our waitress.

“Bien sûr, monsieur.”

He gallantly paid for our lunch and he said his goodbyes to the staff. We walked outside to a cool afternoon under a cloudy, melancholic sky. It was starting to drizzle and neither of us had an umbrella.

“Do you mind walking in the rain?”

“No, not at all.” Maybe I would even end up dancing like Gene Kelly. What a glorious feeling that would be, in Paris.

“What do you say if we just walk around and I show you my neighborhood, where I’ve grown up, gone to school, and still live?” It wasn’t really a question.

We walked up Rue Scheffer and turned left on Rue Cortambert, as he pointed out the pretty facades and shared that a friend had lived here, and another had lived over there, and he used to play in the apartment on the top floor of that building at his friend’s house…

What is it about a place that envelopes you and creeps into your being? Some people love New York City; I have a few friends, including my host in fact, who are fixated on it. But for me, I think I’ve always been a Parisian at heart.

I saw the open door to what seemed like a quaint church and wanted immediately to enter and explore. But I felt that I would be imposing on my friend’s tour if I seemed too pushy to go in. So, we started walking away, when some meters down the street, I stopped.

“Do you mind if we go in?” My tourist alter-ego trying to inch its way into this affair and getting the best of me, of course, no matter how much I was determined to repress it.

“No, not at all. This is my neighbourhood church, where I used to go since I was a little child. But I’m no longer religious.” …. sometimes it is very rewarding to be as annoyingly curious as I am.

Religion, spirituality, and existentialism became a recurring theme throughout our weekend. Ah.. philosophical dialogue, tu m’a manqué. Since my father died, except with my best friend who lives in another timezone making our daily rapport less immediate, I’ve not had profound discussions with anyone on a regular basis. So this was a welcome breath of fresh air.

We walked into the foyer of la Chapelle de la Communauté des Soeurs du Saint Sacrement and went up the stairs on the left. It’s not an elaborate church. But the interior is full of light making it seem very modern and welcoming. The floor is rustic, covered with red and beige tiles depicting scenes of birds and flowers. And the nave is populated with golden-coloured, wooden benches. We each walked a few steps inside, but turned around quickly to not disturb the few churchgoers that were there after lunch. Normally I would’ve been taking pictures at different angles, not caring about anyone else. But here, I just looked around and enjoyed the peaceful silence.

“The nuns still live here,” he informed me, as we were leaving after our brief peak inside. I nodded and smiled in acknowledgment. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the red wine, and the intoxicating feeling of being back in Paris, or all three-in-one, that I was becoming shrouded by this neighborhood, my friend’s life here, his memories. It created an intriguing sense of belonging in a part of Paris I had not been acquainted with before.

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying about almost every building, every street, and every corner on our walk.

I have never previously strolled around the Seizième Arrondisement. It’s above all, elegant and sophisticated. With its embellished, 19th-century buildings, sprinkled with some art-deco here and there, its large avenues and tree-lined streets with names of writers, poets, and influential people, statues of important historical figures, and the Bois de Boulogne, it’s the quintessential, upper-middle class Parisian neighbourhood, the homologue of the Upper East Side, where he and I had met. Yet Paris is Paris, and honestly one cannot compare the City of Lights (and Enlightenment I would add) to any other place.

The afternoon culminated with a creamy chocolat à l’ancienne for me and a beer for him at a corner cafe on a tiny plaza. We sat outside on the sidewalk, at a little round table with two faux-bamboo, wickered chairs, and watched people go by, like a true Parisian. (Roger would be proud of me.)

The drizzle had stopped long before, but a chilly wind was starting to pick up, so we headed back to his apartment to warm up and take a break. After another warm beverage at home, I took off on my own, leaving my friend to grade some papers.

My first stop was Trocadéro on my own to properly greet the grand lady.

It had been about five years since the last time I set foot in Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower. What does one think standing there admiring the symbol of France, surrounded by a crowd of people, yet being alone, feeling strangely lost, and at the same time unbelievably at home somehow?

My mind wandered to the past three, toughest years of my life. The first times I had been to Paris had all been with my parents. On the last occasion together, I was old enough to remember. And now, the memories were fresh again.

My parents and I had been in transit from the US to Spain and were stranded in Paris because of a bad connection. Tired and all, as my father stayed in our hotel to sleep from the red-eye flight, my mother and I had braved the cold morning and walked to the Champ de Mars. That’s just on the opposite side of where I now stood. We had gone up the tower, admired the view whilst shivering in our summery clothes that were appropriate for Seville, but definitely not for Paris in May. She and I were so much alike. My beautiful mom. We loved travelling, seeing new places, fueling our curiosity, reading, eating new things, trying out new recipes, cooking together, and talking for hours about everything. On that serendipitous layover, we saw Les Invalides, we visited the Louvre, and I vividly remember going inside Notre-Dame and being awed by the stained glass windows. She loved art – as I do – and was a collector.

“No, she only bought from local artists. Some are now well known in Spain. But nothing on the world market.” I shared with my friend, one day during my stay.

He had asked me as we walked around his neighbourhood and discussed his father’s art collection, which includes a Pissarro that is locked up somewhere.

“What use is it to have a Pissarro and not see it every day?” I asked, hoping to stimulate a thoughtful discourse.

“I don’t know. But you know, it’s an investment, maybe to keep it safe,” he responded.

Coincidentally, a few days ago, I heard an art critic on the radio say that art doesn’t exist if it cannot be seen and admired. 

On my friend’s advice, I ended up visiting the Musée de Marmottan Monet. This used to be a private collection, and it’s now open to the public as a museum. There was a special exhibit of Pissarro and there is an extensive permanent collection of Manet and Monet amongst other Impressionist artists.

But I digress … as I stood there facing the Eiffel Tower, part of me couldn’t believe I was there in the flesh. I tried to capture the entirety of what stood in front of me, to store it into my memory and not lose any little detail of what I was seeing, experiencing. But another part of me felt like it was living a daydream, like all this was unreal.

I thought back to when my friend first invited me to visit him and Paris. I always knew deep inside I would make this trip happen.

Now, I was really here, on a cool, early evening in March, surrounded by tourists taking selfies or posing for pictures and a bunch of street vendors trying to sell their tricks and their wares. The humming of the city and the music being played by the street artists didn’t bother me; they kind of lulled me away to a fantasy, as I stood there in my little space with what I imagined could be the spotlight shining just on me…

It’s hard to believe that this tourist attraction, and such an iconic architectural wonder, was once viewed with aesthetic skepticism. It was even given the moniker of the ‘metal asparagus’! Yet, today it couldn’t be a more iconic symbol of one nation and people.

It was getting late and chillier though, so I finally began to retreat and walked back towards la Place du Trocadéro. I felt like I was in a film – all I needed was a song playing in the background – as every few steps, I turned around to catch another glimpse. I wanted to never to stop this moment, to never leave, to be able to see her just a little bit longer. To be a true local.

Reluctantly, I left and walked round a bit to eventually go back up the hill, where I again crossed paths with a majestic Benjamin Franklin and headed home.

“Everything in Paris is near,” my friend said later on that evening as we discussed the plans for the next day.

I’m not sure I would agree, especially when one sees the city from Montmartre.

Day Two, A Fugacious Bike Ride 

“I’m going to give you the grand tour of Paris on my bike!” And with that, the night before, I went to bed naively thinking it would just be another day in the city.

There are days in life we wake up thinking we know who we are, but somewhere during those 24 hours, we realise we aren’t exactly who we thought we were …

In my case, a fugacious bike ride on an early Sunday morning on the sleepy streets of Paris could be named as the culprit.

We had gotten up early as planned, showered, got dressed, and went downstairs, helmets in hand, in the tiny glass elevator barely wide enough for one, much less two. The bike was waiting for us, unlocked, just down the street.

“You keep it unlocked? Here in Paris?” I ask with incredulity. It wouldn’t stand a chance in Spain.

“Yes. I’ve never had it stolen in all these years since I’ve been back. And besides, if I put a chain on it, the dogs pee on it, and it’s not nice smelling that when I bend down to take it off.” Sensible of course.

“You’re wearing the perfect shoes.”

“Of course. What do you think?!” In my anticipated elation, I wasn’t trying too hard to not sound priggish, I’ll admit.

I had had enough foresight to pack my black, short boots, the kind that in Spain the moteros wear. The bike ride had been part of the grand scheme of things all along. So, now I was perfectly outfitted for the adventure, although I really had no clue of what I would feel.

He got on the bike, whilst I adjusted my helmet and then hopped on the back. We took off slowly driving up Rue Vineuse and quickly passed good ole’ Mr. Franklin – we were becoming regulars he and I. A group of what we tried to guess were Spanish or French senior citizens, with their tour guide holding up a thin pole with a little flag on top indicating the path to follow, slowly made their way across the crosswalk in front of us, as I was adjusting to being on the bike. The light turned green and off we went.

Oh! How can one describe the fresh, crisp breeze in one’s face, the early morning silence, the almost empty, sleepy streets, and the elegant scenes we were passing by without sounding utterly sappy?

I was so immersed in the daydream that I didn’t realise I kept sliding into my friend and was risking falling off. At a stop at one of the lights, I finally readjusted my position, squeezed my thighs as if I were on a horse, and regained some sort of backseat composure. I packed my hands into my friend’s jacket pockets and started to sway with the movements and enjoy the view on both sides. The air was brisk, but not cold; yet I was glad to be sheltered from the wind by my friend’s body. Every few seconds, it seemed, I kept switching my head from side to side, trying not to miss anything we are driving by.

After some turns here and there, we were in Montmartre.

The streets were just barely coming to life and the cafes were not even open yet, creating the sensation that Paris belonged only to us. As we passed la Place du Tertre, a couple of artists were starting to trickle in to set up their stands. The scene couldn’t have been more picturesque, right out of a movie.

Everything was peaceful and invigorating. And on the bike, I was exhilarated. We rounded our way to the Sacré Coeur, first from behind, and later from the front. The doors were firmly closed, but we had had no intention of going in. We stopped to admire the city from the cliff. From up here, Paris is immense, a little overwhelming. I almost could not comprehend the view, as there was so much humanity spread out in front of us. Too many lives waking up. Too many stories being unfolded. Too many old souls from times past wandering through the maze of streets below us…

After what seemed like a very long moment, my friend turned the bike around. I continued to hang on with my hands inside my friend’s jacket pockets, now with my gloves on, and silenced a few squeals of delight as we sped through some streets with hardly a human in sight, making our way back down the cliff.

“No, I’m not scared. Au contraire, I love it!” I kept having to reassure my friend. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, every bit of the ride, from learning how to keep myself balanced, leaning into my friend without hitting my chin on his shoulders, to breathing in the fresh, unadulterated morning air, to losing myself in the speed and the city passing by. I had not remembered how much fun riding a bike is. And riding a bike in Paris… well, I guess you’ll have to try it…

We stopped on the corner of Rue des Saules, and behind us to the right was the Au Lapin Agile, the famous, historical cabaret. And to the left was another gem, the Clos de Montmartre, a winery in the middle of Paris! Both of these sights I had never seen. So a few obligatory pictures ensued and even a couple of selfies since there was no one in the vicinity to ask to take a picture at such an early hour. After our brief interlude, we made our way down Rue Caulaincourt to head back downtown and drive by L’Arc de Triomphe.

“I’ve been up the Arc,” I yelled out, as the wind threatened to swallow my words and my bangs kept getting into my eyes underneath the protection of my helmet.

“I have too, surprisingly.” There was an emphasis on the last word because as he’s explained to me already, he’s never been up the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way through Avenue George V to the river and drove by le Pont Alexandre III (just behind, one can see le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais), le Musée d’Orsay (I was supposed to see this later in the day – but decided against it in favour of a quiet afternoon at home watching a movie), la Place de la Concorde… les Jardins de Luxembourg…my friend’s high school is on the side street of les Jardins… so many grand buildings, so many Parisian icons, and so much history, all in one sweep. I was feeling drunken and I wanted to do it all over again, although we were not yet done!

We cruised a bit longer and drove behind the Musée d’Orsay, where we parked the bike. As I stood on solid ground again, I felt a little wobbly, just like when one gets off a horse after a long ride. With our helmets on our arms, we walked into the corner cafe, Les Deux Musées, to find only a few early-bird tourists and a couple of Parisians starting off their day. My friend ordered a tartine; and I didn’t know what to order. In my opinion, I know I repeat myself, but the French do not know how to do breakfast. I realise I may be a bit exaggerated with my breakfast meal selections, which invariably include a lot of vegetables, eggs, and no bread. But one must understand that a croissant just doesn’t cut it for me. Nevertheless, I succumbed to the circumstances and ordered a pain au chocolat. When both our plates arrived, I couldn’t believe I had not ordered the tartine, which at least came with a good serving of healthy French butter. I tried to get the waiters attention to order my own, but generously, my friend traded with me. However, he barely ate.

After warming up inside and out, we hopped back on the bike, eventually making our way back home. The day was still young and I took off on my own again. As I walked on Avenue Paul Doumer towards le Jardin du Ranelagh, I stopped a few times to check out real estate listings. Just like I like to buy dictionaries on my trips, I enjoy learning how properties are valued locally and getting a glimpse of real people’s dwellings. At one of the windows, a nice old gentlemen asked me if I was looking to buy. I stifled a giggle and responded in fairly good French that I was only looking. After an exchange of pleasantries, I found myself being invited to tea! Ah, Parisians! I politely declined and continued on my merry way with a huge smile on my face.

Le Jardin du Ranelagh was filled with families and children playing, with people walking their dogs, and with the rhythmic chanting of Gabonais protesting something in front of the Embassy of Gabon. Behind le Jardin du Ranelagh are a number of elegant grand houses, one of them is now the Musée de Marmottan Monet, which I mentioned before having visited. As I had been there the day before as well, I took a bench and sat in silence observing the relaxing scenes. I later strolled past the museum on Rue Louis Boilly to encounter the Embassy of Monaco, the Square des Ecrivains Combatants Morts, and the Bois de Boulogne. The chilly air was refreshing; and I almost went into the bois for a walk, but I was getting hungry for some lunch. So, I headed back to meet my friend. On my way back, I stopped at Pierre Hermé to pick up some macarons, discovering a flavour new to me: a fois-gras-chocolate combination, whose name I don’t remember, but whose delicate taste, a perfect balance of savoury, sweet, and umami, I’ll never forget. (Or could it be that a macaron tastes more sublime when enjoyed in Paris?)

That evening, I became just another city dweller, disrobing my tourist exterior; we watched The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, cozily lying on the futon at home. Day two came to an end with a few tears and a couple of kleenexes. (Needless to say, I’m a cry-baby with emotional stories.) And with the budding knowledge that Paris, somehow, somewhere in just the right time, was the culmination, the turning point to something.

The Last Day, More Croissants and The Seine

Apparently the croissant-tartine fiasco of the day before had left an impression on my friend, for on my last day visiting, he insisted I should have eggs for breakfast. We walked down to Place du Trocadéro and settled on Carette. The place was bubbling with people. It was just a hair too chilly to be outside, although the little round tables and pretty woven chairs on the sidewalk were mostly full. We thus took a seat inside, with me facing the street and all the action coming in. If Carette is not your typical, fashionable Parisian cafe, I don’t know what is. Even the waitresses are nicely dressed and a little bit aloof. The good thing about being with a Parisian native is that other Parisians are not condescending and actually turn helpful once they discern you’re not a ‘real’ tourist. Through my foggy, pre-coffee haze, as we waited for our meal, I pleasantly engaged in some people watching, observing the string of classically Parisian people parade in. My friend pointed out that as it was Monday, one can tell just how many people lead a leisurely life in this arrondissement.

One in particular comes to mind: a tall, thin blond woman in her late 50s (I guessed), who would’ve turned heads in another less-cosmopolitan city but here she’s a normal sight, came in. Her long legs were dressed in opaque, black tights, ending in rather high heels, maybe a little too high for a Monday morning cafe au lait. A golden, loosely fitting mini dress and a fluffy, fur vest completed her essentially elegant look, albeit in a rather ostentatious way. Hanging from one arm was what for sure was an expensive bag, although I didn’t pay close enough attention to check out the brand, since the rest of her was too alluring. Completing her attire were her permanent pouty lips on top of the rest of her surgically enhanced face.

A few Asians also trickled in, also in quintessentially Asian-Parisian looks, like those depicted by Kaneko, my favourite whimsical, Parisian illustrator. They have a sophisticated way about them, which they know exactly how to couple with a hip, quirkiness that makes them so unique and recognizable anywhere. One can always tell them apart I think, even from behind. It’s something about their slender figures, the well-fitted clothes, the elegant coats, the pretty shoes…

Our breakfast arrived almost all at once, creating a bit of havoc for us as our waitress and we tried to fit everything onto our very tiny, round table. I had to remove the salt and pepper shakers, the little flower in a pot, and a few other items to make room for the many dishes. My friend had ordered the Brunch Carette for me (I had let him take over without qualm) and the ‘regular’ Petit Déjeuner Carette for himself. I honestly didn’t want so much food, or bread for that matter, but there was no other way to get my desired eggs, as the difference between the regular and the brunch is literally just the eggs. These came delicately plated with crunchy croissant sticks, which,  yes, I ate.

After filling up our stomachs and sipping a few strong coffees, we walked around a bit and decided to drive into ‘town’. We took an Autolib electric car to Saint-Germain. One can become a member for a monthly fee and then drive the cars, paying only the minutes used. It’s an innovative and smart way to keep the city a little cleaner and greener. There are parking spots that can be reserved sur la marche around the city. It took us a few times passing by Sonia Rykiel’s before we settled on our free spot to drop off the car, which we found near the river.

We walked along the riverbank on the Port des Saints-Pères for a while, admiring the Seine, the few boats that were docked, and crossing paths with other strolling couples and a runner or two. At the Pont du Carrousel we came back up to street level and crossed over to the grounds of the Louvre. It was windy, and as we fought against the gusts blowing our hair around and opening our coats, we entered through the arch at Place du Corrousel. I had never entered through this side of the Louvre and somehow I had never noticed the mini Arch de Triomphe on the left.

We observed the queue outside the pyramid, and my friend remarked that it was good to see that tourism in Paris is still going strong. I agree; not even all the terrorist attacks are stopping people from coming here to see everything this magical city has to offer. My friend works near the Bataclan, where the last major attack took place over a year ago. I was still in the US back then; and I remember texting him enquiring if he was ok. Thankfully, he was, as it took place at night and he was not anywhere near. But many of his friends had been inside and some had gotten injured and others had seen their friends die right in front of their eyes.

I mentioned the galleries near the Louvre, and although I didn’t really care about seeing them (it was a mere curiosity to know their location), my friend took me there. At the Palais Royal, there are a number of interesting shops, including a few luxurious ones, like Stella McCartney. At one of the windows, we admired some very unique gloves, of which I correctly guessed the pricing (all were over 300 euros). I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, but as my friend said, “On your next trip, you must get a pair, so you can say ‘these gloves are from the shops at the Palais Royal in Paris’.” So, it’s unofficially on my agenda for next time…

As we strolled, I wondered what it would be like to live here and have all this at one’s fingertips, on a whim on any given day… When one is surrounded by so much beauty, so much history, so much culture, and so many intriguing gems to be discovered, it’s like being in a living museum. I’m guessing it would be like living in that dream that Roger had conjured up for me.

“I can tell Spaniards apart from the crowd. And I can spot Americans and Brazilians,” my friend, who dated a Brazilian girl for some time, voiced his thoughts as a group of Spaniards crossed our path on our way to Le Jardin des Tuileries. “The Spanish are always very loud,” he added. Yes, they are, I admitted.

Le Jardin was rather tranquil with a few groups of school children and not too many tourists. I had never been in it before, and it was a surprise to see all the statues strewn throughout the grounds. The park was originally created by Catherine of Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace in 1564; and it later was opened to the public in 1667 and became a public park after the French Revolution. I could imagine the elegant ladies and gentlemen that had strolled the park as I did now, preceding me by centuries past; I could envisage them in their grand outfits, their over-sized hats, and twirling their parasols, whilst nodding their heads from side to side, cordially greeting their acquaintances who were also there to see and be seen.

We crossed back over to the Rive Gauche and decided it was time for lunch. We settled on the first restaurant we saw on the corner which seemed nice enough, Le Fregate, just across the Pont Royal.

“It’s always fun having people over to discover places I’ve never eaten at,” he said, adding “Paris is a food-lover’s dream.”

We both enjoyed a typical Parisian dish, one of his favourite’s, a creamy Blanquette de Veau à l’Ancienne with rice. It was delicious. I accompanied mine with a glass of red house-wine, whilst in the background the music of George Bensen created a lovely mood. The waiter told us that the playlist belonged to the previous owners, but that the local crowd enjoyed it so much, they kept it on.

As we strolled back to get the electric car to go home, we stopped at Sennelier on Quai Voltaire for me to pick up some art supplies. We had been talking about art and the Sorbonne since I arrived. And I had shared that I had not picked up a brush since sometime in 2004 or 2005, shortly after he had left NYC; so naturally, I couldn’t leave Paris without stepping inside this famous store.

Sennelier’s on Quai Voltaire is not immensely big, but it does contain quite a lot of supplies displayed on three floors, all of which we explored. The old, worn wooden shelving all seems to be original, possibly dating from the late 1800s, and the staff are welcoming and helpful, although maybe just a little Parisian enough to not bother you as you peruse the goods. That suited me just fine. I ended up buying a little sketch pad, which I’ve not opened up yet…but I will soon. It’s small enough that I can carry it in any purse, and large enough to create something with detail on every page.

We dropped off our electric car near the statue of Benjamin Franklin, back in the 16th. We were headed home sort of with still a few hours to spare before I needed to go to the airport, when my friend said, “How would you like to buy an 800 euro photograph?”

“What do you mean?”

“Come. This guy, who is the younger brother of a friend of mine, has an exhibit at a gallery just up the street. He has over 100,000 followers on Instagram and is selling limited edition prints. Tomorrow is the vernissage. How do you say that?”

“Inauguration. Or Opening night.” I replied.

We walked up Avenue Kléber to the gallery to check out Guillaume Dutreix and his photographs. Months ago, I had dreamt of visiting a photography exhibit with my friend whilst in Paris. In my dream, I know the photographer’s work and we hit it off … so I prepared myself for some serendipity .. but in real life, I had never seen him or heard of his work before. Nonetheless, his photography is impressive. White backgrounds predominate creating an ethereal feel to each image. The angles and the details seem effortless, although I’m sure he’s fastidious about achieving them. My friend chatted a bit with his friend, while I admired the artwork. And then off we went. Time to go home, finish packing, and get ready to abandon Paris.

A couple of hours later, we were standing at Place du Trocadéro, awaiting the bus to take me to Charles de Gaulle. We chatted a little more, as I reflected that the weekend had gone by very fast, although also very intensely. I had lived out the three days as a real local thanks to my friend, who was a wonderful host and who has enabled me to feel Paris in a way that has revived something in me that had been tucked away and forgotten.

As my bus approached, he leaned over to say good-bye, rubbing his soft beard against my cheeks. We exchanged three kisses, looked at each other, and said ‘hasta luego’. I left my bag with the driver, hopped on the bus, and unwillingly turned to my right to look after my friend. He was already starting to cross the street, but also turned to face me, and waved good-bye.

I took a seat a couple of rows back on the left from the driver, buckled up, and aimlessly looked out the window; I was no longer soaking in the city. As we rounded the plaza, on the right, I caught a glimpse now of the opening between the two colossal wings of the Palais du Trocadéro and barely focused on the Tour Eiffel. On the radio a tune started to play.

I instantly thought about these three glorious days spent in this city. Nostalgia started to engulf me, although I hadn’t yet left. At that instant, I promised myself I would return again soon.

Epilogue

City of stars

Are you shining just for me?

City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see

City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants

I don’t care if I know
Just where I will go

‘Cause all that I need is this crazy feeling
A rat-tat-tat on my heart

Think I want it to stay
City of stars

Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined so brightly

À bientôt mon ami; à tout à l’heure ma cherie, Paris. J’ai changé … merci pour tout. Quand je reviens, nous nous verrons avec nouvelle yeux …

Blanquette 

There are maybe other dishes more representative of French cuisine, but the Blanquette is Parisian; in fact, the recipe calls for Parisian mushrooms, which are none other than the button variety, but grown just outside the city. It’s a comfort food, for chilly Autumn or Spring days. And it can be made with veal or another meat. I prefer to use chicken, which is easier to cook and comes out less dry than veal.

I have found a local butcher who procures organic, free-range birds that are healthier, tastier, but also just a bit tougher. So depending on what type of chicken you use, you may have to adjust the cooking times.

Blanquette de Poulet à l’Ancienne

Serves: 4
Prep Time: 10 min
Cook Time: 40 min

Ingredients

2.5 – 3 liters filtered water
1/4 cup white wine
1 whole chicken, preferably free-range, pasture raised, cut into 10 pieces (ask your butcher to do it for you, if you don’t know how)
3 medium/large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 celery branches, cut into medium pieces
7-8 French onions (baby onions)
2 strands of fresh cilantro
1-2 leeks, peeled and chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into medium pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
10-12 Parisian mushrooms (button mushrooms)
50g of butter (I used unsalted Kerrygold)
2-3 tablespoons arrowroot powder
2 tablespoons coconut creme
1 egg yolk
sea salt
ground nutmeg

Method

In a large pot over medium heat, we’ll make a bouillon. Pour the water (start off with 2.5 liters and increase if necessary) and white wine, and add the cilantro, 1 tablespoon sea salt (more to taste later if needed), baby onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms, potatoes, garlic cloves, and chicken pieces. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Once the bouillon is made, take the chicken pieces out of the pot. Heat some butter in a saucepan over medium heat. And add the chicken to caramelize on each side. Set aside.

Now, make a roux with the 50g of butter over medium heat. Cook the butter, stirring constantly, until it reaches a golden brown hue. Add the arrowroot powder and stir well. Cook a few minutes longer. Then add a few tablespoons of the bouillon and a sprinkle of ground nutmeg, to taste. Stir to mix well. Pour everything into the pot and add the caramelized chicken pieces back as well.

In a small bowl, add some tablespoons of the sauce, the egg yolk, and 2-3 tablespoons of coconut creme. Stir to blend well. Pour into the stew pot, and stir. Simmer everything together about 10 minutes.

Serve with some freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, and cauliflower or regular, cooked white rice.

Bon appetit!

Once Upon A Table {Two Calamari Recipes – Papas con Chocos & Habas con Chocos}

I’ve not posted anything since last year November, so first things first: Happy New Year 2016 & Happy Chinese New Year! May it bring us all good health, happiness, and prosperity.

Yesterday the air was crisp, and the sky was so blue it seemed as if someone had taken a brush to paint it just perfectly so. There was not a cloud in sight. And the sunshine was so warm that it encouraged me to take off my jacket and walk about in short sleeves, something that normally at 14C I wouldn’t be doing. As Kiko (our mini schnauzer) and I got closer to the forrest we go through every day, we were greeted by yellow and blue butterflies bouncing around us and a couple of tiny little birds, whose feathers were iridescent in the rays of the sun, and who startled by our steps flew quickly away, chirping. I had the fleeting sensation of being in a Disney fairytale …

[Read more…] »

Lust for Life Reclaimed & Honey-Roasted Rosemary Pork Chops

A few months ago, I started reading Paradise Reclaimed, an Icelandic novel by Halldór Laxness.  I have yet to finish it…but today, made me think of the moral behind the tale in Laxness’ novel.

I was thinking about how sometimes we must take a long journey to get us where we want or should be and to give us that depth of palette, that we would not have achieved otherwise and with which we paint our canvas of life.  At times for some of us, the road can be tumultuous, full of bumps, twists and turns, and paths that maybe we wished we had not taken but from which we cannot turn around. And then other routes appear that we are afraid or unable to take; and yet, when we actually take the leap and grab the proverbial “bull by the horns”, we are lead down a path to magical places…places we have longed for…places that provide wings for our souls to soar…

I haven’t written on the blog since 14 February. Since then and some time towards the end of 2013, I have lived through some intense experiences and mixed emotions, which finally propelled me to take a decision that I should have taken long ago. But as we say in Spain, “agua pasada no mueve molinos” (water past does not move the mill), so regretting the past will lead me nowhere useful.

Today, I write from my lovely Seville, the city where my mother grew up, where many of my aunts, uncles and cousins live, where I am rekindling old friendships, and rediscovering wonderful treasures.  I have been here since the beginning of March, when my cousins went to London to bring me home to ensure I would be in a safe and protected environment.

At first, I experienced some culture shock. Yes! Truly! It’s a strange sensation feeling like an ex-pat in the country that saw me grow up. Plus my mind and body were fighting the idea of being forced into a situation that I had not planned. But slowly, just like the heat of the sun has warmed up my skin, the comfort and warmth of my family and friends have let the light shine in my soul anew. And I have fallen in love with life all over again. I’ve found the lust for life, which long ago dissipated and slipped through my hands, slowly, like the melting snow in the Spring sun.

I’m getting divorced.

I cannot and will not go into why now. Maybe one day I will be able to; and when that day comes, I know that I will be able to assist other women who are in similar situations to the one I have endured. In fact, I am thinking of setting up a foundation.

But for now, all I can say is that the path in front of me, although filled with uncertainties and a few more foreseeable twists and turns, as well as bumps, is also filled with enchanting and magical surprises and a lot of life’s little pleasures.

And maybe it’s very possible that Sevilla has been the perfect medicine for me! I guess things do happen for a reason…

And speaking of Sevilla, I am trying my utmost best to don the glasses of a tourist here. It may seem like an easy task.. but it’s actually a daunting one for me. And maybe it’s my state of mind and emotions. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that it’s hard to incorporate a freshness to my view that is only really attainable when something is new and untapped. Either way… I’m on a mission to rediscover old places and discover those I’ve yet to experience.

One of my new discoveries is El Mercado de los Jueves, on Calle Feria. It’s not a new market. In fact, it’s the oldest running market in Sevilla, dating from the 1400s. My mother was very excited when I shared with her that I intended to go. She used to work as a teenager on Calle Correduria and made a point every Thursday after work to head that way and explore the market. But I had never been. And now, I’ve been twice. And I’m beginning to feel an addiction…

And quite possibly, I don’t exaggerate (exaggeration is a very typical Andalusian trait by the way). As the fact is that I plan on going back again. The market is full of interesting, and oftentimes valuable, antiques, handmade crafts, books, old flamenca dresses, collectible items, and embroidered linens. There’s also a spattering of quite a bit of junk from the 1980s and 1990s. But if you skip over that (unless that’s your thing), there are some good finds to be had.

On my second visit, I went with two friends from high school who are revisiting Spain after many years. So, we toured the market together and even bought some antique goblets and a primitive coal iron (for only 8 euros!) from a sleek but rather nice gypsy and some pan de oro mirrors (although these I think were just painted instead of made with gold leaf as we kept being told) from two artisan brothers who were arguing that they couldn’t offer us a deal on three mirrors because each brother sells his own wares, although they display them together. Sometimes Spaniards are as square-minded as Germans are known to be! 😉

We also saw quite impressive Meissen plates (the dealer said they dated from the late 1800s, but unless you’re an expert, who knows?), antique pieces from church altarpieces, old wooden picture frames, silver and alpaca ware…and the vendors are just as colourful as what they sell. There are gypsies, Portuguese art collectors, some hippies, a few pijos, and a lot of bohemians…you may even get a whiff of some hashish around a few of the stands! Overall, it’s a really fun and interesting way to spend a Thursday morning in the city.

From there, we ventured off into the Mercado de la Calle Feria, the street’s namesake food market, where one can purchase fresh, daily local produce, meats, seafood from Huelva and Cádiz, and specialty items.

As we exited the market through the back entrance, we were greeted by the beautiful mudéjar (Moorish) casa-palacio from the Marquess of La Algaba. The entrance is free, so we ventured in.

It was constructed during the XV and XVI centuries and although it’s gone through various owners and some periods of decadence, it is now fully restored to its original splendor and houses the Center for Mudéjar Art. As with all moorish palaces, the sensation of peace and tranquility, as well as exquisite quality of life, transpire through the pores of the ancient stone walls and sun-drenched interior gardens, offering a magical oasis to the visitor.

In Andalucía, the influence of Islamic and posterior Mudéjar and Mozarabe art, architecture, and culture still permeate today in our way of life, our food and even our language…. it creates that allure, the enchantment, and the duende that we all have a hard time describing, but which captures us all upon our first experiences. And it has recaptured me now and given me back that lust for life long gone.

Of course, my family and friends have been a huge catapult and essential part for reclaiming that joie de vivre too.

And anyway, today I wanted to share with you the reason why I have been absent, the current course of my life and to let you know that Inshallah – God willing, Ganesha willing, Santa Angela & San Nicholas willing ;), I’m here (whether that is London or Sevilla or another location only time will tell) to stay and will soon be sharing more Paleo recipes with all of you…

…the black cloud lingering over my head is not entirely gone yet, although the winds of change have started to blow it away and allow some rays of light to shine on me.

I’m going through a metamorphosis, which I hope and pray will allow me to come alive again with more strength, new ideas and above all, a much happier and healthier state of mind and body that will all positively influence my work and the things I share with all of you.

In the meantime, please bare with me, have a little patience, and don’t give up on The Saffron Girl… 😉

Love, Debra

PS: The following recipe is inspired by my Andalucía, and it’s equally good or even better made with lamb.

HONEY ROASTED ROSEMARY PORK CHOPS WITH OVEN BAKED POTATOES, A 30-MINUTE MEAL

Ingredients, for 2:

4 pork chops or more, if using lamb chops instead
3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and roughly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil, about 1/2 tablespoon
rosemary, about 1 1/2 teaspoons
raw honey, about 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons
coarse sea salt, to taste

Method:

Preheat oven to 180C (350F). In an oven proof dish, place the rinsed pork chops.

With your hands, add a few dollops of raw honey to each pork chop. Sprinkle with rosemary, the minced garlic and sea salt. Add the potatoes to the dish and drizzle olive oil over everything. Add some additional sea salt over the potatoes, as well as a sprinkling of additional rosemary.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve with another vegetable if desired.

*****

CHULETAS DE CERDO, AL HORNO CON MIEL Y ROMERO, Y PATATAS, UN PLATO HECHO EN 30 MINUTOS

Ingredientes, para 2:

4 chuletas de cerdo
3-4 patatas medianas, peladas y cortadas a gajos
2 dientes de ajos, picados
aceite de oliva, como 1/2 cucharada grande
romero, como 1 cucharadita y media
miel cruda, como 1 cucharadita y media a 2 cucharaditas
sal marina, a gusto

Como hacer las chuletas al horno:

Precalentamos el horno a 180C. En un recipiente para el horno, ponemos las chuletas, ya enjuagadas. Con las manos, le echamos unas gotitas de miel cruda por encima de cada chuleta. Espolvoreamos con un poco de romero, le echamos un poco de sal y los dientes de ajos, previamente picados.

Agregamos las patatas al recipiente y echamos un chorreón de aceite de oliva por encima de las patatas y las chuletas. Espolvoreamos con un poco mas de romero y sal por encima de las patatas.

Horneamos unos 25 a 30 minutos. Se puede servir con otra verdura, si lo deseamos.

Basic Paleo Almond Flour Pancakes With Plums and a Quick Euro Trip

Last week Tuesday, I was wandering around the streets of Frankfurt, our former home, while my husband was at work nearby. That evening we drove to Austria for a workshop of his. I tagged along for this trip, as I do on others, especially when he travels by car.

I simply love a road trip particularly anywhere in Europe, where it’s easy to see a few countries within a week. Plus, it’s a great way for us to spend some quality time together and talk. Our road trips may sound a little crazy, as we pack in a lot of events, essentially work for my husband and meetings in different cities, and sometimes countries, and we also try to include some fun time. For me the journeys always mean some sightseeing on my own and lots of local food!

On this trip, we drove from London, crossing the Channel via train, and sleeping the first night in Gent, Belgium. Over the weekend, we were in the Netherlands visiting family and friends, and I even had the opportunity to write a post and share a recipe. I usually don’t take my laptop with me, but I knew I would have some free time and wanted to make sure I would get the recipe to you before returning home. I also picked up the Allerhande form “Apie Heijn” from which I plan to make a few dishes. The supermarket, really named Albert Heijn, is probably my favourite in Europe, and has the prettiest produce, meats and dairy products. They also have a lot of bio (organic) products; and it’s always a delight to shop at them in the Netherlands.

On Monday, we were near Groningen, where my husband had a dentist appointment and we later drove to Frankfurt that evening. It feels like coming home in many ways when we are in Germany, at least it does for me. And this time of year is even more special, as the Christmas markets are starting to pop up everywhere. So while my husband worked, I wandered around the city, visiting my favourite shops, enjoyed a delicious Paleo breakfast at the Hauptwache Cafe and later a Thai lunch at Coa in the Zeil Shopping Center. If you’ve been to Frankfurt, you know this building is incredibly cool. The façade is made of glass plaques, as is the ceiling and parts of the interior.

The architecture in the center of Frankfurt is an interesting mixture of renovated old buildings and very modern structures, such as this one, and the Jumeirah Hotel behind it. The city is known as “Mainhattan” as it’s probably the closest thing to Manhattan in Europe, being a financial business center with many skyscrapers. (Main is for the River Main.) By the way, when we lived here and visited the city museum, we learned that over 60% of Frankfurt was bombed and destroyed during World War II. So many of those old buildings that look like they were built in centuries past are actually rather new.

From the center of Germany, we drove to Seewalchen, in Austria, where my husband had a meeting the following day. We had been to the Salzkammergut area before, visiting Gmunden on the Traunsee, so I knew that we were headed to beautiful scenery and landscapes. And I wasn’t disappointed. Seewalchen is right on the northern tip of Attersee, a beautiful lake surrounded by the Austrian Alpes. The water is crystal clear and drinkable!

So, on Wednesday, I enjoyed a day to myself and explored the neighbouring villages and a visit to the Gustav Klimt Center in Schörfling am Attersee.

Klimt is one of my favourite artists. When I worked in NYC at a private bank, my team and I processed the loan for the famous Adele Bloch-Bauer painting, which now hangs at the Neue Gallerie in NYC. Since seeing that painting in person, I was hooked on anything Klimt. Yet visiting the Center on Attersee helped me learn a lot more about the artist himself and his lifestyle. He was a very interesting and bohemian person, designing women’s clothing and even wearing many of the gowns himself (oftentimes without undergarments!). Many of these gowns, designed by Klimt and created by Emilie Flöge, his lifetime partner of sorts,  “show up” in his illustrations and portraits of women.

Gustav Klimt, along with number of Austrian artists such as Egon Schiele, was one of the most important spokespersons and artists of the Jugendstil art movement in Austria. He spent many summers at Attersee, where he mostly painted landscapes, including the Schloss Kammer.

Walking in Klimt’s footsteps in the towns of Attersee am Attersee, Schörfling and Weyregg and bringing to life many of his paintings was an incredible experience for me. Unfortunately the Center doesn’t have any original works on display; due to conservations reasons, the illustrations are all lithographs. To see the fascinating originals and especially the works of his “golden phase”, one must visit museums or be lucky enough to see a special exhibit or have the money to purchase pieces of his oeuvre…

The day after my excursion through the summers of Klimt, we drove off early in the morning to squeeze in a little bit of skiing at Obertauern in the Austrian Alps. There was fresh snow with some ice patches and chilling temperatures of -12C, but we managed to go down the slopes a few times. Well, my husband did. I went up and down once, as it was a bit too cold for me and the “bunny slope”, where I like to start off only offered a T-bar lift, which I hate.

We spent the evening and night in Nürnberg, where we walked around the Christmas market, had some Nürnberger sausages, a glass of Glühwein, and dinner at the Barfüßer Bräuhaus. We ate a very typical German fare of Schweinehaxe (pork knuckle) and suckling pig accompanied by Kloß (called Knödel in other parts of Germany) and red cabbage. Needless to say, we were satiated after dinner. 😉

Friday morning we took off early in the morning again, so that my husband and a colleague could be in time for a meeting near Mannheim. And I strolled around along the Planken, the main shopping street, and the Christmas market. It had been around 20 years since I was last in Mannheim, back then for work with Elizabeth Arden. I didn’t recognise a thing…

On Saturday, we once again were in the Netherlands, where we visited family in Arnhem and ate the best and most fresh, raw herrings at Gamba, a beautiful fishmonger, which is quickly becoming our favourite and a ritual. I indulged in two harings, one right after the other, whilst my husband also enjoyed some kibbling, deep fried cod. Dinner was very traditional Dutch for this time of year: some hutspot (boiled potatoes, carrots and onions with bacon bits of course) and boerenkool met worst (boiled potatoes and kale with Dutch sausage), which my husband’s cousin made for us. It was delicious. We used to make it often at home, and both are the first Dutch dishes that I learned to make after meeting my husband. They are hearty and perfect for a cold winter evening. I promise to make them at home soon and share the recipes with you.

We returned to the island on Sunday, with a short detour on our way to London via the Cliffs of Dover. When we were relocated to the UK in January of 2012, our first trip over with our car was onboard a ferry from Calais to Dover. I was very apprehensive of the Chunnel back then and figured that a boat crossing would be much safer than going inside a train that’s inside a tunnel that is below the earth that is below the water…since then, we’ve used only the Chunnel for making the road trip back to Continental Europe, and I must say that I love it. Well, love may be too strong of a description… more like I tolerate it with more pleasure than originally thought since it’s a very quick journey of about 35 minutes in that train that is inside a tunnel under the earth that’s under the water… (it’s best not to think about all that).

The Chunnel takes off from Folkestone; so, we had not been back to Dover since our first crossing. And after this excursion, we have promised ourselves to return as there is so much more to see than we thought. I hope to make a weekend out of it and see the surrounding area as well.

On our detour, we had time to walk on top of the cliffs, where there are a number of paths through beautiful fields filled with rabbit holes, some sheep in the distance, and the gorgeous and grey North Sea just below the White Cliffs. The scenery is magnificent; and although one walks almost on the edge of the cliffs at times, it’s actually not even scary, but rather peaceful and energising. If you do go, remember to wear proper footwear, as it can be muddy. I was wearing clogs (not the right footwear) and slipped on our way back to the parking lot and ended up with muddy pants, shoes and hands. 😉

Coincidently, we ate lunch at the same hotel where we spent the first night in the UK, the Dover Marina. They were serving a Sunday roast carvery lunch and were all primped up for Christmas… just the perfect ending to a perfect trip just before the holidays.

On Monday, it was back to reality of an almost empty fridge and longing for someone else to prepare my breakfast. Fortunately, we still had eggs left (I checked them in water before using them) and plenty of almond flour. So, I invented these pancakes on the spot. I guess you could call them a basic recipe, since you can add more ingredients to them and experiment with different toppings.

Hope you enjoy!

BASIC PALEO ALMOND FLOUR PANCAKES, WITH PLUMS

Ingredients, makes 8 medium-sized pancakes:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup ground almonds (almond flour)
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 4 plums, peeled and cut into slices or chunks (optional)
  • butter, coconut oil or fat of choice for frying

Method:

Heat a skillet over low heat. Lightly beat the eggs with a hand whisk or fork.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Add the butter to the skillet and melt. Pour the pancake mixture by spoonfuls onto the skillet. Cook until the pancakes start to bubble, then flip over and cook all the way through, about a few minutes on each side. Serve with maple syrup, if desired.

*****

TORTITAS AMERICANAS, TIPO PALEO CON ALMENDRAS MOLIDAS Y CIRUELAS FRESCAS

Ingredientes, para como 8 tortitas americanas:

  • 4 huevos
  • 1 taza (250ml) almendras molidas (muy finamente molidas, lo que se llama harina de almendras)
  • 2 cucharaditas de zumo de limón
  • 1/2 cuchardita de bicarbonato de soda
  • una pizca de sal marina
  • 4 ciruelas, peladas y cortadas a lascas o pedacitos (opcional)
  • mantequilla, aceite de coco o la grasa que prefieras, para hacer las tortitas

Como hacer las tortitas americanas:

Calienta una sartén sobre fuego lento.  Bate un poco los huevos con un tenedor o una batidora de mano. Añade los demás ingredientes y mezcla todo bien. Pon un poco de mantequilla o aceite de coco sobre la sartén hasta que se derrita. Pon una cucharada y media (de las grandes) de masa por cada tortita. Deja que la masa empiece a hacer burbujas y entonces dale la vuelta. Se fríe o cuece unos minutos por cada lado. Se sirve con sirope de arce, si se desea.

Stratford-upon-Avon and Some English Lessons, The Cotswolds Part I

It’s been a while since I’ve written an entry in my Travel Logs. And although we travel frequently, I generally don’t have the time to indulge in doing a proper write-up about many of our trips, which was one of my original intentions with this blog. But a few weekends ago, we made an excursion that deserves a break in my routine so I may share with you a little bit about what we saw, experienced, and most importantly discovered.

For me, one of the most interesting facets about travelling is what I learn, things that I probably would never retain otherwise or would not affect me in the same manner, had I not experienced them first-hand and in person. And since we are living in England, it would be a crime to not visit the Cotswolds or the birthplace of who is considered the most influential and important writer in the history of the English language, Shakespeare.

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William Shakespeare

The weekend had a few highlights for us, aside from the trip and landscape themselves. One, we had a fantastic, well-informed guide at the Anne Hathaway cottage in Straford-upon-Avon, from whom we learned where a few ordinary English language terms originated; two, driving through this beautiful part of the countryside made us experience what is simply quintessentially English – the thatched roofed cottages, the lovely country roads large enough only for one car, the pretty English gardens filled with roses, and tearoom after tearoom; and last, we were once again educated by an extremely entertaining and well-informed guide, Tabitha, at the Roman Baths in the city of Bath.

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Speaking of those narrow English country roads, I kept imagining myself in a vintage British convertible, with a scarf wrapped around my head flowing in the wind, and some romantic music playing in the background, while we slowly but steadily made our way from village to village….sometimes, I could also imagine myself riding in an old Land Rover, my most favourite car, driving up to my Georgian manor surrounded by acres of farm land scattered with sheep, and my adorable Rufus waiting to greet me…

It’s so easy to create dreams when visiting the Cotswolds.

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Rufus was our Saint Bernard, when I was growing up in Spain. He and Fritzy, our crazy German Shepherd, loved to jump into the back of my father’s Land Rover and head to the beach. Rufus was such a big, loving dog (and I was such a little girl), that sometimes I rode him like a horse. The Cotswolds brought back a longing for living on a farm and having animals around me that I had thought was not possible anymore. I’ll have to work on that dream becoming real!

Anyway, back to the reality of the trip…

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Shakespeare’s Birthplace, as seen from the Gardens

The Cotswolds can be done in two days, as we did; however, I would suggest either more days to really linger, or going back frequently, as we intend to do.

We started off our journey in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, home to his family, and later where he died. There are five houses connected to his life and death and they all belong to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which has renovated and preserved them for all of us to be able to experience this exciting part of English (and world) history.

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Views of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language; he was a poet, playwright and dramatist; and stepping into the past and walking “in his footsteps” is somewhat magical.

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The first house we visited was Shakespeare’s birthplace, which is located in the center of town, on Henley Street. His father, John, was a successful businessman and glover, who also served as town mayor. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of an affluent landowning farmer, and her house is part of the Shakespeare’s Houses & Gardens, which we however did not visit and plan to return to see. The tickets allow for re-entry within a year, like many of the National Trust properties do as well. So, if you’re a local or live close enough like us, it’s a great deal of which to take advantage.

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John’s business afforded the family an affluent upbringing and William had a “good life” and later through his line of work, met and befriended very influential people, and expanded his fortune enough to finance several properties, including the second largest house in Stratford during his time, New Place. The birthplace is somewhat of a higgledy-piggledy set of rooms, which shows how the house was expanded upon throughout the life of its occupants into what is visible today and is an attractive timbered house from the outside. On the inside, you can visit the ground and first floors, the kitchen and gardens. It’s a must-see to understand how life was during the Middle Ages in England. It must have been quite dark with only candles creating some light and the windows being so small. Outside in the garden, costumed actors were performing excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s definitely worth taking a seat on one of the benches, enjoying their art and being transported into another era…and maybe start dreaming again.

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Nash’s House

The next house on our tour was Nash’s House & New Place. Shakespeare bought New Place in 1597 and this was the second largest home in Stratford during his time. He lived in it with his family when he was not in London, and this is where he died in 1616. New Place is no longer standing; only the foundations are visible on the grounds, which is now the garden part of   Nash’s House. Nash’s House was named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, and a wealthy landowner. It’s a well-preserved Tudor building with a beautiful, traditional knot garden in the back. Don’t miss out on visiting the garden and the green expanse behind it, as it’s actually quite impressive to see how large it is for a property in the center of town. Apple trees line part of the knot garden, which must be even lovelier to see during the summer when the flowers are in bloom.

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From Nash’s House, we walked down Church Street towards Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband, Dr. John Hall, the town’s wealthy doctor. The house has features, which show off their wealth, such as stone flooring, large stone fireplaces, and beautiful exposed timber beams facing the street (so people walking by could be witness to their economic status). It’s a grand house by 16th century (and even today’s) standards. The gardens are very pretty and include a variety of herbs that were most likely used by Susanna’s husband in his medicinal potions. (Personally, I would love a garden like this for my culinary needs, as I keep killing off my herbs on the windowsill.)

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Hall’s Croft, house, interior, and gardens

A short walk from Hall’s Croft is Holy Trinity Church, which is where Shakespeare was baptised and later interred. At the feet of the high altar, you can see the graves of William, his wife, and his daughters as well as as that of John Hall, his son-in-law. Shakespeare and Anne had three children. Susanna was born only about six months after they were rapidly married, when Anne was 26 and William only 18! And then they had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at age 11 of unknown causes. Back then the cause of death was not recorded unless it was part of a coroner’s report. But as the plague was still rampant, it’s quite possible that could’ve been the cause… but we’ll never know for sure. Shakespeare himself survived the plague as an infant, but his death at the approximate age of 52 was also due to unknown causes, very possibly due to some infection or disease for which medicine back then had no cure. As Shakespeare did not want his body to be examined or exhumed, he supposedly placed a curse, which can be read on the epitaph of his gravestone, on anyone trying to remove his bones from this location. So we will probably never know for sure what caused his death; on the positive side and for tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon, this curse most likely saved us from seeing his grave site transferred to Westminster Abbey in London.

(By the way, we learned that there are no direct descendants of William and Anne alive today. However, Anne Hathaway’s family flourished and one of her brother’s descendants lived in her house until 1899.)

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Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

A walk behind the church takes you to the banks of the River Avon, which is lined with beautifully trimmed weeping willows. A number of locations offer boat rides along the river…something we’ll try to enjoy on our next visit. Again, it was so easy to imagine sitting on a boat, with my husband wearing a stripped jacket and straw hat and rowing away, as I coquettishly hold my parasol to protect me against the rays of the afternoon sun…

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River Avon

Our last stop in Stratford was Anne Hathaway’s cottage. The house and 90-some-acre property were first leased by Anne’s grandfather and later purchased and passed down to family members until the late 1800s, when the property was purchased by the Trust. The cottage started off as a two-room house with very high ceilings and a fireplace in the middle of the main room. It was later expanded by Anne’s eldest brother and is a lovely example of a thatched Tudor cottage, with somewhat messy, but enchanting English grass gardens, an apple orchard and a vegetable plot. It’s truly a romantic sight!

And it was here that we learned a few things about how some English words came into being and how life transpired during Tudor times. In the main room of the house, what today would be considered the sitting/dining room all together, there’s a fine example of a dining table, commissioned by Anne’s grandfather and used until the house was handed over to the Trust in 1899. The table may not seem like much to us today, but it’s a beautifully crafted piece of furniture, which has a table top or board that is “convertible” or which can be flipped around. The practical reason for this feature is that Tudor people were messy and dirty eaters, eating with their hands and allowing things to drop off of their “tranches” or plates, therefore not only getting the floors (and their clothes) dirty, but also scratching and getting the table top dirty and greasy. However, this same table would serve as a place to play card games with the family and guests, so by flipping it over to the “prettier” side for that purpose, it was always kept presentable. The man of the house sat at the head of the table in a chair with arms, whilst the women and children sat on armless chairs or stools. Since the man sat at the head of the table, then called board, he was considered the “chairman of the board”…and this is how this term originated! Isn’t that cool or what? And wait there’s more… when playing cards, it was considered foul play to place your hands below the board/table since that way one could cheat. Hence, the term “above the board” was coined meaning that everything, hands included, and especially morals, were to be kept above the board and visible to all.

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Anne’s cottage may not seem today like it was the home of a well-to-do family, but if you look closely, you will see signs of Anne’s family’s affluence and wealth, such as the stone floors, large stone fireplaces and the bedrooms, which included guest beds. Beds were reserved for the wealthier folk and for guests, and were made of straw “mattresses”, which were not often cleaned or replaced and included the ubiquitous little bed mites. The mattress lay upon a criss-cross stringed bed slate that had to be tightened every so often. So, therefore the other phrase: “sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite” came into being.

We learned a few other intriguing pieces of historical information, which were of particular interest for me, since I obviously love to cook. Food was served on “tranches” or wooden plates. Tranche comes from the French word “piece”, as referred to a piece of wood or even further back in history, a piece of bread, upon which food was served. The tranches were being constantly carved out of wood by the family’s on-staff carpenter and when a tranche got particularly greasy and full of grime, it was simply tossed into the fire and replaced with a new, clean one. The tranche is square in shape, with a small little indentation in the upper corner, where salt was placed to condiment one’s food. The lady of the house was the keeper of the rock salt, as it was a very valuable condiment during those times. The eldest son was mostly likely the child in charge of grinding up some salt every day, which he later gave to his mother, and who in turn shared with the family and guests, allocating an amount of salt that fit in her pinched fingers, called a “pinch of salt,” to each diner.

The stove was literally kept running all day and night with a pot constantly cooking. This dish, if we can call it as such, was called potage, from the French word as well meaning stew, porridge or a thick soup. Remember back then, those who could read and write mostly spoke French, which was the language of the conquering Normans. These words dwindled down into the regular folk as well. The potage could include any type of meat and vegetables and as it was constantly cooking and not often cleaned out, another phrase “piss pot in, piss pot out” was coined meaning “garbage in, garbage out.”

Chicken, by the way, was considered a very special treat and quite expensive. The animals were kept primarily for laying eggs, and therefore eating a chicken was translated into the loss of a valuable source of eggs.

Nothing was wasted in those times, including the ashes from the oven and fireplaces, which was used to make toothpaste and soap. Of course, back then they didn’t clean their teeth, which they did with their fingers as no toothbrushes existed, on a daily basis as we do, nor did they bathe but about once a year. When bathing day came around, usually when Spring arrived and a new set of clothes was freshly put out, a big bathtub was filled with water and the man of the house went in first, followed by the lady of the house and the children, with the youngest one being last. By the time the youngest or the baby was put into the bath, the water was so full of grime from the rest of the family, that is was dark…so, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” takes on a real meaning. 😉

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It sounds kind of yucky if you really envision it! I prefer to keep it on the romantic level, rather than think about how this particular English phrase came about. The thing is Anne’s family was not poor and they did enjoy a number of luxuries, as well as were very well fed and healthy for their time. In fact, since Anne’s family was affluent, they would have given their food scraps to the poor, after scrapping it off their tranches with some bread. The bread and all went to these less lucky souls.

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They had a working farm, which supplied them with all their necessities and land for their sheep, making them successful in the wool trade through which most likely Anne’s father and William’s father met creating a family and business bond. Their farm was planted with all of the seasonal, local vegetables and fruits they required… but there’s one vegetable they would’ve not eaten, and that is the potato! When the potato was introduced into England in the 16th century, it took some time before it was considered an article of food. As it grows underground, it became associated with the Devil. In fact, young men would try to show their virility by wearing a potato on a string around their necks, thereby demonstrating to the world (and especially young women) that they were not afraid of the Devil. However, they rather became the laughing stock of people, and Shakespeare makes reference to this his play, “Merry Wives of Windsor”.

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As you see, our visit to Stratford-upon-Avon was quite fruitful in terms of English terminology, which seems quite fitting given this is the birthplace of Shakespeare, and learning a few things about living and eating during Tudor times.

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Our trip continued on to the lovely, honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds and onto the Unesco World Heritage Site of the city of Bath… but I’ll leave all that for my next travel log.

Green Papaya Salad (Nom Xoai Xanh)

We visited Vietnam last year. I think it’s one of those places that does not leave you indifferent on many levels. The clash of modernisation with colonial vestiges from Chinese, French and even American influences and the native culture are sometimes perplexing. One example is that we were driven from the Hanoi airport to our hotel in a car that had wifi onboard, while on the side of the main highway, we drove past people with traditional clothing – and yes, the Vietnamese hat – working on the rice fields, had to avoid cattle crossing the road, and nearly missed a few accidents with mopeds carrying two, three people and sometimes even a whole dining room table! To see a glimpse of our time in this beautiful country, please view my travel log on Vietnam.

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This incredible experience, from which I learned a lot about human history and how things are perceived depending on whose perspective we are looking upon something (French and Americans are called invaders in northern Vietnam, and the Chinese are also considered such but on a different level) left me with a lasting impression and a need to return that I hope to fulfill one day.

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Part of the richness of our adventurous time in Vietnam was trying all the delicious food available and visiting the markets. Breakfast in the Asian countries I’ve visited consists mostly of a warm soup, such as Vietnamese Pho. Hanoi came to life each day we were there with everyone preparing and eating Pho or some other form of street food, while the shops slowly but energetically opened up, women balancing baskets on their shoulders headed to the market or were selling their wares on the street, and the silence of the night was thoroughly disrupted by an incessant noise that lasts until very late in the evening.

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(grating the green papaya with the kitchen utensil that the Hanoi Cooking Centre gave me)

(Vietnam, although a one-party Communist country, is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. In fact, if you were unaware of the political regime, you would think you are in a Capitalist nation, since it seems that everyone owns their own shop. Stores occupy the bottom part of almost every building in Hanoi and even in many areas of the countryside.)

Pho is one thing I need to make at home, but haven’t yet because I need to find a butcher that will sell me really good quality, grass-fed beef and have it very thinly sliced. I plan a visit to the London Borough Market soon… so I’ll be shopping for my ingredients, making Pho and sharing the recipe with all of you.

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Ah.. the recipe! Well, while in Hanoi, I took a cookery course with the Hanoi Cooking Centre. I had just started my blog and had never done anything like this, while on vacation. So, the idea was exciting and intriguing. I took a taxi to the school from our hotel, thinking I couldn’t manage the streets… one must cross the street through traffic! It turns out it’s not as hard as it first seems, although a bit nerve-wracking for the newcomer, and I ended up walking back to my hotel after the course.

The course I took was called “Street Food”. And since taking it, I’ve had on my agenda making all of the recipes.. but haven’t gotten around to it until now. However, I’ve made great use of the grater the school so kindly gave me!

Some of the ingredients are not easy to find, such as good quality green papaya or banana blossom. I bought a banana blossom sometime last year at an Indian store, but was thoroughly disappointed when I cut into it and it was rotting. ;(

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(these are the dried, salted anchovies that I used)

But on our excursion to the Asian market this past week, we found green papaya and a whole plethora of other goodies! Therefore the first recipe I share with you from our Vietnamese adventure is Green Papaya Salad. I made a few alterations to keep it Paleo (no sugar and no peanuts) and added a couple of ingredients of my own, such as pomegranate seeds and created my own “fish sauce”.

I hope you enjoy!

Green Papaya Salad (Nom Xoai Xanh)
Recipe Type: Salad
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Author: The Saffron Girl
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • For Salad:
  • 1 green papaya (pawpaw), peeled and grated or spiralised
  • 2 green onions, finely sliced julienne style
  • 1 long Vietnamese chili, seeds removed and finely chopped (be careful they are very hot, so it’s wise to use some sort of gloves)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or cut julienne style
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
  • seeds of one pomegranate
  • 3 tablespoons cashews, roasted and crushed*
  • 1 small red onion, very finely sliced
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • olive oil or other fat for frying
  • Dressing:
  • 1 tablespoon coconut sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons dried, salted anchovies or dried shrimp, fried
Instructions
  1. Peel the green papaya and with a spiraliser or grater, grate all of it until you’re getting close to the seeds. Place in a large bowl.
  2. Add the sliced green onions, the minced garlic, the Vietnamese chili, cilantro leaves, and pomegranate seeds. Toss and set aside.
  3. In a pan, add about 1 tablespoon of coconut oil over low heat.
  4. Fry the cashews until golden brown. Scoop them out and place on a plate with paper towels to soak up any extra fat.
  5. In the same remaining oil, fry the dried anchovies or shrimp. Scoop them out and also place on a plate with paper towels to soak up the extra fat and stay crispy.
  6. Clean the pan, when slightly cooled, with a paper towel and add new coconut oil or olive oil, enough to “deep fry” the sliced onion. Heat over medium heat.
  7. In a medium bowl, coat the sliced onion pieces with the arrowroot powder. Dust off any extra arrowroot powder with your hands.
  8. Once the oil is hot, carefully place the floured onions into the pan. Make sure to separate them before putting them in, or they’ll clump up.
  9. Allow to fry on one side before stirring/flipping to fry on the other side. (If you have a deep fryer, it’s easier to use that than a pan.)
  10. Scoop out of the pan and place on another plate with paper towels. Set aside and turn the oil off.
  11. In a mortar, place the fried anchovies/shrimp and grind with the pestle.
  12. Add the lime juice and coconut sugar and mix well. Set aside.
  13. Place the cashews on a flat surface, such as your counter top, and with the back side of a bowl, press into them, breaking them up into pieces. Scoop them up and place into a bowl. Set aside.
  14. When you’re ready to serve the salad:
  15. Toss the papaya mixture with the dressing and cashew pieces.
  16. Serve in individual plates or a large bowl and top with the fried onion pieces.

 

Roasted Summer Vegetables, Red Mullet & The Borough Market

Here’s the dish for this post… but first a little bit about my visit to the Borough Market in London….(you can skip to the bottom for the recipe).

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A few days ago, I visited the Borough Market in London with a fellow Paleo blogger, Ceri, from Natural Kitchen Adventures. I had been wanting to go for quite some time, but for some reason it just seemed too far a trip. It turns out it’s not and it’s quite easy to get to. In fact, for those of you in London, it’s literally right above the London Bridge tube station and very close to the Shard. One word of caution though: take a few bags (and plenty of money!), as you’ll want to buy everything in sight! 😉

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Ceri and I met in person last year and had been wanting to do a market outing together for some time; and now we finally got around to it. She has been to the market many times before and acted as an impromptu guide, showing me around the vegetable, butcher, fish monger and specialty stands.

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If you haven’t been, it’s a must see, even if you’re just a tourist in London. It’s really a beautiful market with mostly organic produce, grass-fed meats and wild caught fish. I honestly can’t speak much about some of the specialty shops, as I didn’t visit them. But there are a load of places selling pastry, chocolate and sweets and even organic muesli and cereal mixes. There’s also a Spanish shop with a wide variety of cheese (many unpasteurised), jamon serrano, salted cod, and other traditional foods. And there are plenty of places to eat, although most of them are not Paleo-friendly.

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On one of our turns around the stalls, we bumped into Hook & Son, a raw milk supplier and producer of raw cream, raw yoghourt, raw butter and raw buttermilk. I hadn’t had raw milk since I was a child in Spain, so it was quite a treat to sample it again. I must say, it’s so delicious and creamy! And it didn’t even bother my tummy. I’m lactose intolerant and regular, pasteurised milk sits like a bomb in my belly. Granted, I only had a little bit… but Ceri and I did share an apricot-flavoured, sugar-free yoghourt and loved it! What’s even cooler about Hook & Son is that there’s a British documentary that has been made called The Moo Man. Stephen Hook, the very friendly and informative farmer, who attended to all our queries, is the protagonist (along with his herd and family) of the film, which apparently was a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival 2013. I look forward to finding a screening near us, as it’s supposed to be a very interesting and heart-breaking love story of Mr. Hook’s journey to remain organic and preserve his herd and farm. I also look forward to finding the time to visit his farm. But in the meantime, the good thing about Hook & Son is that they deliver raw milk all over England and Wales! That’s quite exciting for me, as I want to make good quality kefir and pasteurised milk doesn’t cut it. (For more information on the film, please check: moomanmovie.com.)

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Anyway, at the market, we really had to struggle to control our shopping impulses. Everything is so beautiful. The fruits and vegetables look simply amazing and picture perfect. So much so, that I actually succumbed and bought a purple cauliflower, some yellow courgettes (zucchini), purple kale, and some figs, which were simply just too expensive, but I hope worth it!

As we were ready to leave, Ceri took me over to The Ginger Pig stand, a butcher, specialising in organic, grass-fed lamb, beef, pork and poultry. We kindly requested some beef bones for broth and the nice butcher gave us a bag full!

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It was not easy to leave the market, but at least we left happy and already brainstorming how to use our purchases…

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And here’s a recipe with the yellow courgettes that I bought. I used both the yellow and green ones I had previously on hand to add more colour to the dish. But you can make this with just the regular green ones, and also add in aubergines, if you like (I would’ve added them, but didn’t have any left).

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Roasted Vegetables with Red Mullet
Recipe Type: Main
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Author: The Saffron Girl
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 2
Serves 2.
Ingredients
  • 6-8 red mullet filets, depending on appetite and size of filets
  • 1 medium green zucchini (courgette), sliced diagonally to make larger “rounds”
  • 1/2 large yellow zucchini (courgette), sliced diagonally to make larger “rounds”
  • 2-3 medium tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and sliced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
  • Herbes de Provence
  • freshly ground rosemary
  • coarse sea salt
  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • freshly chopped parsley
Instructions
  1. Rinse the fish filets and set on a paper towel over a plate. Sprinkle with some coarse sea salt and set aside.
  2. Prepare the vegetables.
  3. Preheat the oven at 180C (350F) while you set up the vegetables, as follows.
  4. In an ovenproof dish, alternate between the zucchini, tomato and onion pieces, layering until you have covered the dish and used up all the vegetables.
  5. Drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle some coarse sea salt over top.
  6. Sprinkle some Herbes de Provence (I used about 1-2 teaspoons) and some rosemary (I used about 1/2-1 teaspoon) over top.
  7. Place in the middle rack of the oven and cook for about 30-40 minutes until the zucchini are tender.
  8. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar. Let sit a few minutes before serving to absorb the vinegar flavours.
  9. About 10 minutes before the vegetables are ready, you will need to cook the fish.
  10. Add some olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) in a pan and set the filets and garlic inside.
  11. Over low heat, cook the fish, turning over to cook each side, about 3-4 minutes on each side.
  12. (Red mullet filets shrink quite a bit and also may “shrivel” up. So, make sure to cook just long enough, but not overcook or it will be too dry.)
  13. Serve immediately with some freshly chopped parsley as garnish and the roasted vegetables as accompaniment.

 

Moules Marinieres (Mussels) & Happy New Year!

One of my favourite things to eat during the summer months when travelling through Belgium and France are “moules frites”. Moules are mussels and frites are french fries. Belgium is famous for their french fries, where there are shops dedicated to selling only frites with mayonnaise and spicey sauces and there’s even a museum dedicated to the french fry!

Ironically, I’ve never been a huge fan of french fries, unless they are homemade…but the moules I can’t get enough of! Since this past summer, I had been dreaming with making some moules marinieres at home, but haven’t been able to find the mussels in my local shopping area in London.

But now, on our holiday visit with my parents, we went to their local fish shop and bought some perfect mussels for our New Year’s Day lunch, which ended up being more of an early dinner with a delicious second plate of salmon with spaghetti squash… but that’s for another post! 😉

The following version is pretty basic, to which you can add things like roquefort cheese or other flavours should you wish to. My favourite is this basic sauce, however, and that is what we enjoyed today.

MOULES MARINIERES

Ingredients, for 4 (or about 2 kilos of moules)

  • 2 kilos fresh, medium to smaller sized mussels
  • 1/2 liter dry white wine
  • fresh parsely, 4-5 sprigs
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 large leaks, cleaned and finely sliced
  • fresh thyme, a large sprig
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 3 stalks celery with leaves
  • 50g butter (about 1/2 stick)

Process

Clean the mussels and rinse well to ensure they have no sand. Make sure to only use the ones that are closed, as the animal is thus alive. Set aside. (If storing overnight – before cleaning, as we did in the fridge, place a bowl filled with something heavy, such as potatoes, over top to ensure they do not open.)

Prepare all of the vegetables. Create a bouquet with the parsley, thyme, bay leaves and the part of the leaves of 2 celery stalks. I tied mine with a nylon string used for cooking. Set aside.

In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions, leeks, garlic and saute until soft (but not long enough to change colour). Then add the bouquet and stir to mix.

Add the white wine. Immediately add the mussels and stir to mix well with the onion mixture. Add the remaining celery stalk, cut in 2-3 pieces. Cover and cook, stirring a couple of times, until all the mussels open up, about 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to sit about 3 minutes, covered, before serving.

In France and Belgium, the moules are served in their own enamel-coated 1-kg cooking pots. However, as we do not have these pots, we served them in shallow bowls. Enjoy with some Spanish albarinho or favourite white wine!

Macau & African Chicken (Galinha a Africana)

On our recent trip to Vietnam, we had a day layover in Hong Kong on the way over and about a 12-hour layover on the way back. So, we took advantage of the time to visit with some friends who live in the area and to do a bit of sight-seeing. This is my second time in Asia and also my second time visiting both HK and Macau. The contrasts I observe I think will never cease to amaze me.

On the ferry from Kowloon to Mainland Macau

After landing in Hong Kong, we took the express train straight into Kowloon, where we had booked a hotel for the evening. We checked in, freshened up and headed for the ferry terminal. By the way on a side note, I still had my Octopus Card from about 6 years ago and it worked. The Octopus Card is like the Oyster Card in London, where you can top off as you go and use it for all the underground, busses and some ferries as well. However, one cannot use it for the ferry to Macau, or at least, we don’t think so.

Arriving in Macau

Arriving in Macau… first casinos are visible from the ferry

The journey over is about an hour from Kowloon to Macau. We learned, that since our last visit, there are new ferry lines now going to Taipa as well. Taipa is one of the two islands that along with the Mainland Macau make up this special administrative region. China took over Macau in 1999, after more than 400 years of Portuguese rule. One would think that after such a long time, more Macanese would speak Portuguese, after all it’s one of the official languages, it is still used in government buildings and all signs are in Portuguese, as well as Chinese. Yet, that’s not really the case. I had noticed this on my first visit here, and was again aware of this disparity when trying to communicate to the locals.

Our friend Mary, a Macanese, however speaks multiple languages, one of them being Portuguese. Mary picked us up at the Macau ferry terminal and we headed over one of the long bridges joining the region to Taipa to see the University of Macau, where my husband and she had studied about 12 years ago. The University, which will soon be transferred to mainland China, is located in a modern building on a hill. Most of Macau is made up of hills. And curiously one drives on the left here, just like in Hong Kong (in mainland China and Portugal, one drives on the right). From what we learned it seems that the reasons for this are purely economical rather than historical or cultural, since all cars are imported from Hong Kong.

Waterfront street near the Plaza of Sao Francisco Xavier

Same waterfront street

After a quick zip through the area, we headed over to Coloane, the second island, now joined to Taipa via a landfill. Coloane is also being colonized today, but in a new way. The region’s newest and largest casinos are prominently welcoming the visitor on what is the land-filled area, now called the Cotai Strip. In Coloane, one can still see vestiges of a Portuguese past in a laid back atmosphere, which is relaxing and inviting. It’s almost like stepping back in time. In fact, in the older areas of Macau, one feels like one is no longer in Asia (until the oppressive humidity and heat remind you otherwise) but somewhere on the streets of Lisbon or another part of Portugal. It’s truly a beautiful contrast.

Sao Francisco Xavier church and plaza

We parked along the water front, facing what is mainland China. Yet another contrast. It’s hard to imagine that across what seems like a little pond lies the big giant of the north and yet mainland Chinese are not allowed into Macau without special permission. Macau will remain a special administrative region until 2050, when it should be fully integrated into the rest of the country. And although that is not that far away, it is hard to fathom what type of changes could come about after integration, some maybe not so welcome.

Mary took us to the plaza of Sao Francisco Xavier, which is lined with Chinese restaurants on one side and Portuguese restaurants on the other. We chose a Portuguese one, facing the little church of Sao Francisco Xavier, where we enjoyed some traditional Macanese dishes, such as Bacalhau a Braz, Bok Choi in some special sauce (can’t recall) and African Chicken.  The three dishes are perhaps more symbolic than one would think at first. And they represent Macau’s history perfectly, which is a mixture of the Portuguese heritage, the Chinese roots and the influences of immigrants brought to China by the Portuguese, such as the African slaves.

Menu at the restaurant where we ate

Bacalhau a Braz and Bok Choi & Steamed Vegetables

African Chicken

Restaurant, where we ate

Part of the Plaza of Sao Francisco Xavier

After a delectable lunch, during which Mary had to rush off to get back to work, we strolled through the old parts of the village and then hopped on a bus to get back to Cotai, where we wanted to see what the Macanese version of the Venetian looks like (after all, one cannot come to Macau without visiting a casino, right?). The region’s economy is based on the gaming and tourism industries and it’s very quickly becoming the Las Vegas of Asia, with revenues tripling  those of its American counterpart.

Street in Coloane

Things we saw in Coloane

The Venetian and the other casinos on the Cotai Strip provide free shuttle busses to their sister casinos on Mainland Macau. So, we took advantage of this and went to the Sands casino, which is located across from the new shopping and recreation complex that is being built near the ferry terminal. The complex, when completed, will be amazing with stores, theaters, restaurants and attractions. Mary met us here again in the afternoon and whisked us away to tour the rest of the city. We went up Guia hill for a beautiful view of the city below.

Guia Lighthouse and Chapel – see the wedding couple being photographed?

View of Mainland Macau from the Guia Fortress

The Guia Fortress lighthouse and little chapel are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the historical center of Macau. The fort and the chapel were built in the 1600s, with the lighthouse being constructed much later between 1864-65. It’s the first western style lighthouse to be built in east Asia. We were joined on our tour by couples taking their wedding pictures at the fort. It seems like it was the season for weddings on this trip, as I also witnessed many couples taking their wedding pictures, while in Ha Noi. 😉

One of the Portuguese colonial mansions in Mainland Macau

Garden in Mainland Macau

Commemorative plaque at the entrance of the gardens

The Macau Venetian casino, inside

Inside the Venetian

Chinese Pavilion & Koi Pond, part of the new shopping & entertainment complex

After our quick tour, as we needed to get back for dinner with other friends, we bid farewell to Mary and Macau, and boarded the ferry back to Hong Kong.

My African Chicken – Mi Galinha a Africana

AFRICAN CHICKEN (GALINHA A AFRICANA)

For the original recipe, click here.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5-2 kilos of chicken pieces or whole chicken, cut into pieces (I purchased drumsticks, as that’s all I found at Tesco’s)

For the Marinade:

  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less according to how spicy you would like this; I for example didn’t use any)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon pimenton (or paprika if you don’t have it)
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese 5-spice powder (a mixture of star anise, cinnamon, fennel, black pepper and cloves)
For the Sauce:
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup garlic, minced (it’s about 1 head of garlic)
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1/4 cup pimenton
  • 3/4 cup grated coconut
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews (the original recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, as the peanuts are originally an African legume; feel free to substitute)
  • 1 1/2 cups water or chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup full fat coconut milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

Chicken marinating

Process:
The night before, marinate the chicken pieces: mix all of the ingredients for the marinade together and rub into chicken. Place the chicken in a bowl or dish and cover with plastic wrap. Let the chicken marinate overnight. (The fridge will smell delicious every time you open it!)
Make the sauce:
1. Over medium heat, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the raw cashews. Slightly brown and remove from heat. Scoop out the cashews with as little oil as possible and place in a mortar. With the pestle grind them finely. Set aside.

Ground cashew (pimenton from Spain in the background)

2. Heat about 1/4 cup olive oil in a saucepan or wok over medium to medium-low heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes, stirring often so the garlic will not burn. Add the paprika, pimenton, coconut and turmeric and cook for another few minutes. Add the chicken broth or water, coconut milk, bay leaves and ground cashews. Simmer for 10 minutes over low heat. Remove the bay leaves. (The sauce can be made ahead of time, just warm up before finishing the dish.)
To Finish the Dish:
Preheat oven to 200C (about 400F). In a wok or large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Once browned, transfer the chicken to an oven-proof dish and cover with the sauce. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the sauce is bubbly.
Traditionally, this dish is served with rice. However, I served it with a “salad” of quinoa, pomegranate and wild rocket leaves.

Ready to be served…

…and ready to be eaten… 😉

Quinoa, pomegranate and wild rocket “salad”

Vietnamese Coffee and First Impressions

It’s ironic how “they” always say that first impressions are the ones that count. I think it’s not really always true, or at least not always accurate…but here are mine of Vietnam.

When we landed, a car was waiting to pick us up to take us to the hotel. We were escorted in style with comfortable air-conditioning through a busy road lined by rice patties and fields. But as we drove, it was hard to soak in all the contrasting views. Here we were sitting in a luxury automobile with the driver and one of the concierge ladies from the hotel, with wifi included so we could get online or make a phone call (like we did on Skype to my parents), while outside there were a complex array of views passing by. The road was full of vespas and motorbikes, loaded with not only people (most wearing masks to protect against pollution and air contaminants) but everything you can imagine; the rice patties on the sides of the road brought images of a quintessential Asia seen in travel and history books; the houses looked like something out of a European fairy tale crossed with Indian or South American influence, with their very tall and many-storied look and colourful facades; and yet through this semblance of peacefulness, there is an underlying chaos all around with horns honking, fumes blowing out of cars and motorbikes, and even a water buffalo or two trying to cross the same road we were driving on.

Vietnam is a country trying to embrace and adapt to the modern world, yet it is riddled with a political system that would seem anything but Communist (everyone seems to be an entrepreneur) and a history that usually equates to invasions, suffering and wars. The Vietnamese seems like a strong and resilient people; a people with hope and hard-working ethics; and a people who want to bring their nation into the 21st century quicker maybe than they are really prepared for.

I couldn’t help but think all of this, and kept rehashing that only about 30 years ago, this country was at war, and one of the bloodiest and most tragic wars remembered in recent history. From a Vietnamese perspective, especially in the north, the latest war is called the American War, and was started by the invasion of the Americans. They have also been invaded on numerous occasions by China, from whom they have a rich historical legacy, and by the French.

But on the street, all that one sees is a frenetic kaleidoscope of colour, people, mopeds, and rapid movement, sprinkled with elements of an ancient culture, which is still very strongly pulsating.

So, my first impressions of this beautiful country were anything but orderly (what a contrast from “alles ist in Ordnung” mentality of the Germans!).  And to make matters a bit more disconcerting, I was suffering from jet lag and lack of sleep from our 12-hour flight from London and our little excursion into Macau (I’ll share about that soon, as well as a delicious recipe).

I was in serious need of sleep, but too excited to get any. And, so once at the hotel, I ventured out to see a pagoda and a temple along the West Lake of Hanoi.

I quickly learned that I should’ve gotten some rest, especially if I wanted to be lucid enough to remain alive on the streets. Crossing the road in Hanoi and Vietnam for that matter is a question of keeping calm, having a determination of steel, and carrying on…there are no rules of the road and very few traffic lights that are adhered to. Therefore, one must cross the street amidst hundreds of mopeds zooming by, other people crossing, and an incessant noise, as well as uncomfortable fumes lingering everywhere. I know a few friends back home, who probably wouldn’t venture out more than once in a chaos like this!

But being successful at the effort is definitely rewarding! There’s a magnificent world to be discovered if one does. The first pagoda I visited was Tran Quoc. It’s not the first one I’ve seen in my travels, but it was the first one in Vietnam. It’s quite impressive mostly because it’s on a little peninsula on the West Lake and is truly picturesque. I didn’t dare ask if photography was allowed, and simply started taking pictures and waited to be reprimanded. However, I never was and there were many other taking pictures, including locals. (I’m usually more respectful, mind you, but I was a bit tired to be coherent.)

After the pagoda, I walked along the tree-lined avenue to the end of the lake, where there was a temple to be discovered. Along the walk, locals were fishing with bamboo canes, selling exotic fruits and lounging around. It was all very peaceful, except it was constantly interrupted by the noise of all the mopeds driving by.

The Quan Thanh Temple dates from the 11th century and is one of the four sacred temples of Hanoi. Although it’s not as impressive as other temples, it’s worth a visit for its historical value, as well as being very close to the Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum complex, which I realised a few days later when we visited that area.

Another important discovery, which helped me immensely with my jet lag and concentration is Vietnamese coffee! On my way back to the hotel, I just couldn’t keep my wits together any longer and had to stop for a strong dose of caffeine to wake me up. And wow, what a discovery! I love coffee. I love the aroma when it’s being ground and brewed. And although I could drink it more often than I regularly do, I don’t because I usually get very nervous with more than two cups. But Vietnamese coffee is different. It looks menacing with its dark colour, but as it’s a smoother version of Java, it’s easier on the nerves. Or at least, it seemed so to me.

The Vietnamese serve the coffee in a little cup brewer with condensed milk on the bottom. And although I’ve pretty much given up sugar, I couldn’t resist for two reasons: one, it was safer than drinking coffee with “fresh” milk; and two, it is simply delicious! And well, I must add a number three: I love anything different and drinking it as the locals do just made it more fun.

I had numerous Vietnamese coffees while in the country and even bought an individual brewer and some coffee. I just wish I would’ve bought a couple more brewers and also more coffee to last a while…

But fortunately, as the Vietnam Lonely Planet explains, Vietnamese coffee is exported all over the world. “The best grades are from Buon Ma Thuot and the beans are roasted in butter.” Maybe that’s the reason for the delicate aroma and smooth flavour? Additionally, LP points out, the following, which I didn’t pursue unfortunately, but found interesting: “Lovers of weasels and strange things should get their hands on ca phe chon (‘weasel coffee, No 8 of the signature Trung Nguyen brand). These coffee beans are fed to weasels first, then harvested from their droppings before being sold to you.” Ha! Now, that’s different alright! I, however, bought No 7 of the Trung Nguyen brand unknowingly, which probably has a less colourful process, but tastes just as delightful.

Over the course of the days we were in Hanoi, I managed to have at least two cups of coffee per day. And we even visited the Kinh Do Cafe, which is famous for being the setting of Catherine Deneuve’s morning coffee during the making of the film Indochine. If you’re in Hanoi, don’t bother, unless you’re a fanatic of the actress and want a picture of the film’s poster or are in the neighbourhood.  There are plenty of more inviting coffee shops in the city.

I did miss out on one opportunity though and that was trying caphe trung da, coffee with “a silky smooth beaten egg white” (and one could say a Vietnamese version of cappuccino)… so I had to try this at home and hope that it’s close to the original. 😉

CAPHE TRUNG DA

Ingredients:

1 cup of Vietnamese coffee

sweetened condensed milk to taste, or honey and milk to taste

1 egg white

Process:

Place a teaspoon or more of sweetened condensed milk or honey, if you prefer, in the bottom of the serving cup or glass.

Place the ground coffee in the Vietnamese brewer with piping hot water over a cup or glass. (If you do not have a brewer, use your regular coffee method to serve yourself a cup of coffee.) Allow all the water to pass through the brewer. (Add milk at this time as well.)

Beat egg white until stiff peaks form and place over the brewed coffee.  Serve immediately. Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg if so desired.

(I have to admit that without the sweetened condensed milk, the flavour of the coffee is not the same. So, if you eat sugar, at least give this a try once the “real” way! ;-))

 

Dubai & Ginger Infused Strawberry and Celery Chilled Soup

View of Dubai, with early morning fog, from our hotel in Deira
I was disappointed today, as I planned on going out for a walk along the Thames. But the weather is not cooperating with me and I decided to stay indoors. Exercising outdoors in London means going out even in the rain and cold weather (even in the summer), but I’m from southern Spain and I am apprehensive when it comes to walking/running and getting all wet.
That got me to thinking that if I lived somewhere warm and with eternal sunshine like Dubai, I wouldn’t have that problem. But then again, in Dubai, people like to stay indoors to avoid the heat and humidity of the street! I guess one can never win….
We visited Dubai in September last year. As we arrived at our hotel in Deira, near the unfinished Palm Island, it was early morning around 6am and the heat was just starting to get intense. There was a light fog lingering over the city, which threatened to blur my sightseeing later in the day. It turns out that September has the highest humidity of the summer months because as sea temperatures have reached a peak in August, there is a tendency for warm, humid air to reach the coast. Fog is a regular occurrence during the early morning because of this warm air mixing with the cooler night temperatures.
However, we are die-hard travellers. So, heat and humidity were not going to stop us from exploring the city. Dubai is one of the seven United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula. It is probably the most well-known, as it is famous for the original Jumeirah Palm Island, the World Islands and also now the tallest building in the world, Burj Al-Khalifa. By the way, the Burj (tower) was going to be named Burj Dubai. But as the emirate was hit hard by the financial crisis, it had to be rescued by Abu Dhabi, one of the other seven emirates of the U.A.E. So, in honour of the Khalifa of Abu Dhabi, the tower’s name was changed to what it is today.
Dhows on The Creek
On our first day in Dubai, we explored the old part of town. Dubai is a trade city par excellence, acting as a broker between the East and West. The Creek, the waterway into the city from the Arabian Gulf (also known as Persian Gulf), is packed with cargo boats from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Oman, India, Yemen, Somailia and Sudan, with merchandise from these and other countries.
These boats, called dhows, are long, flat wooden vessels used typically in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to transport goods. They are a marvel to see and it is interesting to understand just how they stay afloat, when they do not look so sturdy and are precariously loaded with maybe several cars, a truck, and a warehouse’s worth of merchandise.
Passenger abra, traditional wooden water taxi
Passenger abra, crossing The Creek
Loaded dhow, leaving Dubai
Heading past the Dhow Wharfage, our first discovery was the Spice Souq. Ah.. I was in heaven! It is probably my favourite souq in Dubai and a walk through it, is a pleasure for the senses. The market is not a tourist attraction, but rather a working souq, so you can find many household things, such as glass and plastic containers, being sold here, alongside the exotic spices. We let our noses and eyes pave the path, as the pungent aromas lead the way.
The Spice Souq

Heading away from the souq, we stumbled onto some interesting streets, where all kinds of merchandise was being sold. We even found a shop with flamenca dresses!
Street, off of the Spice Souq, with other merchandise
(even flamenca dresses! – albeit rather ugly and outdated)
Wheelcarts, waiting to be used
As we started the day so early, we were ahead of any tourist crowds there could be. So, by the time we arrived at the Heritage House, it was just opening. The Heritage House is a renovated 1890s courtyard house that once belonged to Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk, the founder of the Al-Ahmadiya School, which we also visited later. The house offers a unique opportunity to see how a rich pearl merchant lived.
Dubai’s pearl industry, which was the mainstay of its economy for centuries, died out in the early 1900s, in large part due to the Great Depression and the discovery by the Japanese of how to cultivate pearls artificially.  However, vestiges of this historical industry can still be seen today in parts of Deira, where the wealthy pearl merchants, fishermen, divers and others involved in the trade lived and worked. Many of the traditional wind towers have been restored, along with the houses, and can be viewed today, as part of the Shindagha Heritage Area, in Bur Dubai.
 Enjoying a short reprieve from the heat at the Al-Ahmadiya School
Lunch at the Afgan Kebab House, near the Naif Mosque
After a delicious and filling lunch, it was hard to get motivated in the intense humidity filled the streets of Deira. So, we headed to The Creek to walk along the waterside. There we hopped on a traditional wooden taxi, called an abra, and for just Dh1, we crossed to the other side to Bur Dubai. According to the Dubai City Guide, by Lonely Planet, 15,000 people cross the Dubai Creek each day on abras! It’s an interesting experience, especially since not too many tourist take these water taxis; so it’s a fun way to mingle with the locals. And since you’re at water level, it’s a cheap way to enjoy a much needed cool breeze and a lovely view of the wharfage and skyline.
Entrance of Silk Souq, in Bur Dubai
 Silk Souq, Bur Dubai
Wind tower, at Sheikh Juma Al-Maktoum House, in Bur Dubai
Lebanese cold mezzes at Shabetan Restaurant, inside the Radisson Blu Hotel
The next day, I explored on my own, as it was Sunday, the Islamic world’s Monday. First stop: Dubai Mall. In one word, WOW! It’s the world’s largest shopping mall, with 1200 stores, an aquarium, indoor amusement park, and an Olympic-sized ice rink! Dubai has a lot of “largest”, “tallest”, “most” appellatives, as it is trying its utmost to become the Las Vegas of the East, or the playground for the rich in the East. And Dubai Mall is just one example. The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, inside the Dubai Mall, has the “world’s largest acrylic viewing panel”, as is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.
 
 The cave/tunnel leading to the main building of the Aquarium, where you can come nose to nose with sharks, mantas, and other fish

Floor decor at the Dubai Mall 

 I’m sure you’ve seen this in the news!
 Me, with Burj Al-Khalifa in the background
Bloomingdale’s in Arabic!
Olympic-sized Ice Rink, inside the Dubai Mall

Attached to the Mall, and outside, is the Dubai Fountain, which has a spectacular water and light show in the evenings, and the Burj Al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. It’s quite an amazing view from the 124th floor, where the Observation Deck is located. In fact everything about it is amazing, even the full one minute it takes for the elevator to transport you up the 442m in the air to the public viewing area from the ground floor.
View from Observation Deck of the Burj Al-Khalifa

The following day, we explored bits of Jumeirah, which is the modern, newer area of Dubai, and where most of the “western” expatriates live. The poorer workers from Pakistan, India, and other parts of the world, live in Deira and less expensive areas.

Dubai is a city of adaptation, change and growth. When the pearl industry died out and oil was discovered, the city jumped on the bandwagon and evolved in part to what it is today. As the Dubai-tis are understanding that oil is not an unlimited resource, they are embracing the tourist, technology, film, and communication industries with fervor. You can see a lot of examples of this new path in the city’s growth in Jumeirah. 

One such example is the Jumeirah Mosque, which offers free tours and is the only mosque in Dubai that is open to non-Muslims. It almost seems like it was built for this purpose alone!

A lovely English lady, who told us she was married to a native Dubai-ti, and has been living in the Emirates for over 15 years, conducted the tour and educational piece for our group. We all had to take off our shoes and the women in the group had to cover their heads, with scarves. Luckily I had planned in advance, and had a scarf ready. But the mosque offers wraps for use inside to tourists who forget them. Photography is allowed and although I felt a bit disrespectful taking pictures, I did indulge in a few. We learned about Islamic religion and culture, as well as a bit of Dubai history. The U.A.E. is one of the most open Islamic countries in the world, and foreigners do not need to cover up. In addition, pork and pork products can be sold (to non-Muslims) and eaten in Dubai, as well as alcohol can be consumed by non-Muslims.

Jumeirah Mosque
 Jumeirah Mosque
Our group, inside Jumeirah Mosque
Digital clock, which states the time that the sun rises, and the five prayer times to be observed

Also in Jumeirah is the famous Burj Al-Arab, the iconic symbol of this ever-growing city. It is the sail-shaped building, home to a 5-star hotel (some people say it’s 7-star hotel, but that seems to be nonsense). It’s beautiful and alluring from the outside, as one approaches it along the causeway to the man-made island where it stand majestically. Inside, it’s a bit gaudy and glittery, but ever so impressive. As you cannot enter the hotel just to have a look, the only way in is to either stay there, of course, or book a reservation at one of the restaurants.
So, we booked Afternoon Champagne Tea. It wasn’t cheap, at about 80 USD per person, but we were left with little choice, as the rest of the options were even pricier. (By the way, according to the Lonely Planet edition we have, the tea consists of unlimited champagne, which is not the case. Only one glass is included in the price.)
The service and attention were exquisite. But then again, all service in Dubai is exquisite, except for maybe in the hustle and bustle areas of Deira. The views are magnificent. In fact, you can see the Jumeirah Palm Island from the Skyview Bar, where tea is served, and also other parts of Jumeirah Beach.
Cappuccino with 24-karat Gold Dust
Burj Al-Arab, as we left. The picture is blurry because my camera was trying to adjust to the hot and humid outside, after being indoors for hours!

After lingering as long as we could and were allowed, we headed back to our hotel for the night. On our way out, I tried to take some pictures of the impressive lighting on the building, but my camera lens couldn’t adjust to the hot and humid outside, after being indoors, in an air-conditioned place for so long! By the way, we were told at our hotel, that all the buildings must keep the air-conditioning on extra high, even when it is not so hot out, because the humidity causes condensation to occur, creating rain inside the buildings, if the a/c is not used! So, needless to say, one freezes inside and melts outside.

Mall of the Emirates, where Ski Dubai is located
Nice ride, waiting for its owner outside the Mall of the Emirates

On all my trips, I love to pick up literature that I find in the hotels and places we visit. On this particular trip, I picked up some magazines, which offered insight into the daily life of expatriates, as well as locals, in Dubai. Also, it had quite a few interesting recipes, one of which I’m sharing below.
As a side note: Arabic is written from right to left, and books and magazines, and the Qu’ran all open in reverse from their western counterparts. Magazines which are made for both audiences have two halves: one, as in the West, and then you flip the magazine around to read the Arabic version! Very creative.
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Ginger Infused Strawberry & Celery Chilled Soup
Ingredients
  • 2-3 tsp of olive oil
  • 15g of white onion, chopped
  • 2g of garlic, chopped
  • 200g celery sticks, cleaned, peeled and chopped
  • 400g of strawberries, cleaned
  • 220ml of cold water
  • 6ml ginger juice or 6g of fresh ginger, grated
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • celery leaves and/or physalis for garnishing (optional)
Process
In a pan, heat oil and saute onion, garlic and celery until soft. Add the strawberries and saute for a minute. Set aside to cool.
Place the mixture in a blender, add cold water and blend until you achieve a smooth consistency. Add ginger juice/grated ginger, salt and pepper.
Strain the soup using a fine strainer, if necessary, then pour into a bowl and chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
To serve, pour the soup into small glasses and garnish with celery leaves and/or physalis or a simple grissini stick.
I recommend peeling the ginger with a spoon
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