Thursday, October 26, 2006

Perugia !! Oh wonderful Perugia !!

How does one describe a food festival devoted entirely to chocolate ?? I’m not sure but here goes !!

The chocolate festival I’m talking about is the Eurochocolate festival, held every year (in October) in the ancient (were talking at the time of the Etrusans) Umbrian hillside town of Perugia (home of the famous “Baci” chocolates).

The festival is an experience that overwhelms the senses of taste, smell & sight with chocolate (in all its forms) everywhere you look: from the stallholders that make up the festival, to the local restaurants & cafes of Perugia. Everyone embraces chocolate during this time.

This is the sort of festival where you won’t find your Nestle, Cadbury or Hersheys brands of chocolate...actually, come to think of it...there was a Nest-Quick stand giving away free samples of Nest-Quick !! Here, you’ll see names such as Lindt, Peruggina Nero, Peruggina Baci, Venchi, Caffarel dal Piedmonte and other, artisan chocolate makers. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any Ferrero there either !!

Let me explain how this festival works: a 1km section of the main street from Piazza Italia (& surrounds) leading up to the main cathedral (as well a few side streets) are taken up by stalls that the above-mentioned companies set up where they will sell their range of products. Dispersed between the stall are local shop-holders selling everything from Nutella-filled crepes , beers, soft drinks, piadinis & paninis (more about them later). Occasionally, you see a podium where there will be someone handing out free samples of a companies chocolate to the masses below. It’s just as well they are on a podium: they would be mobbed otherwise.

There are a couple of other stalls selling non-chocolate related products such a truffles & truffle-related items (it is the truffle season at the moment) such as salami with truffles, truffle pasta, oils, pastes & truffle flavoured Pecorino cheese. don’t really have to buy anything if you don’t want to. There are enough free samples or tastings being handed out. Take, for example, the giant Lindt ball set up in the main Piazza. It was a display about Lindt chocolate. As you entered you were advised: “Dark chocolate to the left. Milk chocolate to the right.” I went right & was met by a collection of smiling Lindt people with samples of the various forms of Milk chocolate Lindt had to offer. You could eat them there & then or save them for later. Can I just say they never made it out the door !!

The people from the Caffarel company got to know me real well. Their display about giandujotto involved a tour through history (complete with period costumes) about the company & lots of free samples. Now, giandujotto is my favourite chocolate, hence my reason for going back time & time again.

To really immerse yourself in chocolate, however, you do need to fork out a few euros & try the samples on offer. Some of the things I sampled, tasted & saw:

Lindt balls the size of grapefruits

Hot chocolate in a variety of flavours with a dollop of cream, some served with a chocolate spoon

Liqueur chocolates (again in a variety of flavours)

Fresh, hot crepes filled with Nutella

Spanish doughnuts (ie: Churos) with hot chocolate dipping sauce

Chocolate-coated bananas with nuts, served with a hot chocolate sauce

Fresh Sacher Torte

T-shirts dipped in chocolate (guaranteed to smell of chocolate for a few weeks at least)...only 35 Euro !!

Chocolate pasta (incl. Ravioli)

Can you feel your Cholesterol levels going through the roof ????

Add to that...the hotel I was staying out had a big bowl of chocolates right by the reception desk which they encouraged you to help yourself to.

The festival is quite popular so it can get quite crowded, particularly on the last day as everyone from around Europe (by the looks), descends to Perugia for that last great fix of chocolate. The weather over the last three days was pretty awful which didn’t help with the crowds but Perugia have been running this festival for a number of years so they’ve got the procedure down pat.

There are a few other things to see in Perugia, apart from the chocolate, which provided a welcome break from the crowds: Etruscan sites, magnificent view across the Umbrian countryside from some of the out-of-the-way piazzas, the National Gallery of Umbria, etc......

But I digress !! The whole reason for being here was the chocolate festival. Did I go crazy with my chocolate purchases ?? Apart from picking up a few things for friends, I managed to collect a number of free samples & buy the odd thing or to (incl. “Baci”...we are in Perugia after all), which may or may not survive the trip home.

Other food experiences

What !! I had other food experiences at a festival totally devoted to chocolate ??

Piadinis: flat bread served up with wild boar sausages, fried onions & fried capsicums (+ a bit of ketchup).

Porchetta: Pig on a spit (complete with head & feet) with stuffing & Rosemary, sliced & slapped down on a big bread rolls with a pinch of salt.

Well....that was the Eurochocolate festival. I hope this blog goes some ways to telling you what a great experience it was. I hope the photos I took will do it justice as well.

The next blog will cover the day trip I did to Assisi (like the good ex-Catholic I am) & my experiences in Milan.

Until then...take care.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Eternal City

I have to say that I don’t think that much of Rome...but there’s one place that always fascinates me & that I’m always drawn to: the Roman Forum.

So much history, so much political intrigue & political back-stabbing (literally) has taken place in this small area, that it’s hard to imagine. There is where Caesar was stabbed & his body cremated; here is where the Vestal Virgins tended the flames of the Temple; over there is where some of the great political speeches by Cato were given; just to the right is the prison cell (Carcere Mamertino) where St. Peter & Paul were held. As I much history.

Eating my lunch at work, looking out over the air-conditioning units & across to the square just isn’t the same as munching on some salami & mortadella sandwiches amongst the ruins of the Vestal Virgins Temple.

Another reason to come to Rome was to see Trajan’s Column: a column erected by the emperor & detailing his conquest of the Dacians (present-day Romania). I have walked past this column so many times in my visits but not realised the significance of it.

Nearby the Column & overlooking the Forum are the Museums of the Capitoline Hill: museums dedicated to ancient sculptures. What a collection they had !! Some of the most famous works that you see in all the history books: the she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus (the founders of Rome); the Dying Gaul; the face & finger of the giant statue of Constantine (the finger is the one that graces the cover of the current Lonely Planet Italy guide); the Bronze Statue (AD200) of Marcus Aurelius. There were some truly magnificent pieces of art in that collection & I’m so glad to have taken the time to visit it.

When in can’t help but visit churches. I avoided the Vatican (I’ve been there, done that !!) but I popped in to the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. It’s famous for two reasons: it contains the chains that St. Peter was imprisoned in & it contains a famous artwork by Michelangelo. The artwork is his statue of Moses (complete with horns), that was to grace the tomb of Pope Julius II. It never happened & the pope was buried in St. Peters while the tomb stayed in San Pietro in Vincoli.

Food Experiences

Can’t say that there were many memorable food experiences here in Rome. It was nice to wander into a deli & order a couple of slices of salami, some Prosciutto, some slices of Provolone, some bread, fruit & a bottle of water for a ready-made lunch under about 6 euros.

I did, finally, get to visit the markets at Campo di Fiori (the food markets for Rome). I have to say I expected the Campo to be a bit bigger but it was still nice to wander amongst all the food stallholders to pick up fresh produce.

Observations of Rome

One things that I have noticed is the number of Indians/Pakistanis or Bangladeshis around the place. Once upon a time, you’d be buying your fake D&G handbag from an African, who had his wares on display on a blanket, that he could easily pack away once he saw the cops. Well...those Africans are still there; still selling their dodgy gear, but I noticed that there are more folks from the Indian sub-continent doing that now. They’re the ones who do the runner once they see the cops.

Well....that it from me for the moment.

The next post will be a detailed account of the EuroChocolate Festival. Can I give you a hint ???

It was so great !! I ate so much chocolate !!!!

Until then...take care.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Adios to Spain

When we last left our wayward adventurer, he was in Cordoba, admiring the Arabic architecture of the Mezquita & planning his trip to Granada.

Well…plans changed & I ended up “chilling” in Cordoba for a few extra days (that & the fact that I didn’t organise my accomodation in Granada).

I did a day trip to Seville instead. I, somehow, managed to order the correct train ticket, for the correct time & day. I was impressed !!

Seville is typical of a major Spanish city in this has a Cathedral & it has an Arabic fortress (an Alcazar). It also seems to be full of orange & lemon trees !!

The Cathedral of Seville is quite impressive: it has one of the largest high alters in Europe, it has an impressive treasury & also happens to contain the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The tomb is set in the middle of the chuch, near the high alter & is not hard to miss. It has these four massive pallbearers (each representing the kingdoms of Spain at the time), carrying aloft the coffin containing the bones. the Spanish would like to believe but it seems that recent studies have shown that the bones aren’t, in fact, those of Christopher Columbus. They could well be those of one of his sons. It would seem that the real bones are in the Dominican Republic. The tomb is still pretty impressive !!

Nearby to the Cathedral, is the Alcazar. It has the obligitary, beautiful, serene gardens...full of orange/lemon trees & fountains, that provide a sanctuary from the chaos that is the Spanish streets. It has amazing Arabic architecture & colours that are so refreshing from the dowdy, dingy colours you find in most churches.

Seville also has the Plaza del Espagna...a huge public space with interesting decorations around the pillars.

With time running out in Spain, it was off to Valencia to meet up with B. & G., as well as experiencing one of the great pleasures of Spanish food: Paella.

Paella comes from Valencia so it was our mission to find a decent Paella place, down by the seaside (of course). After a busy day exploring the sights of Valencia (more of that later), we managed to find ourselves at this restaurant, looking out across the Mediterranean Sea (if you stood on your chair & looked down the length of the restaurant). The meal started off with a serving of fried calamari (lightly battered & salted) for most of us (someone wanted to be healthy & ordered a salad), then the star of the meal arrived.

Out came the biggest pan I’ve ever seen (well...actually...I saw bigger Paella pans in the markets that could serve up to 100 people) with a Valencian Paella (saffron, chicken, rabbit, broad beans & green beans). It was devine !! Ok….maybe a little bit oily but something about the beans just really set off the flavour !!

After pigging out on the Paella, what better way to finish off the meal than with a Catalin Flan (ie: Creme Brulee) with a crunchy, burnt sugar topping.

Now, Paella is not the only thing to see in Valencia. Valencia is home to the City of the Arts & Sciences…some of the most architectually bizzare buildings that you will ever see. They are so space age in their design that they look as though they belong on the set of a ST:NG episode (sorry...Next Gen fan here !!). These buildings house an arts centre, an IMAX theatre complex, a science exhibition & a plant collection (for want of a better term) that seems to house alot of Australian plants !!

Valencia is also home to Lladro porcelin factory. I’d never heard of Lladro before coming to Spain but it is one of Europe’s most famous (& expensive) figurine companies. Anyway, next to the factory (located out in the suburbs), is the factory seconds store, offering figurines at greatly reduced prices. Not really being a porceline figurine person myself, the prices were still pretty steep. There was much buying up of figurines by my friends...they had a grand old time.

Another thing that Valencia is famous for is that it is the home of the Grail. Yep...THAT Grail !! At the main Cathedral, to the right as you enter, there is a little chapel. Behind the alter, is a glass cabinet containing a cup, said to THE cup that Jesus served the wine at the last supper.

Food Experiences

Apart from the great Paella in Valencia, it was more a case of experimenting with Tapas & seeing what it was that I was ordering. My favourite Tapas would have to be the the croquets with Bacala (salted Cod) & with Jamon.

I also love the potato tortilla that come out looking like a big, chunky frittata.

Oh !! Before I forget, I have to tell you about this Tapas bar in Madrid that specialises in prawns. This place was brought to my attention during the “Parker Tour” of Madrid. It’s called “La Plaza del Abuelo”. Their specialty is garlic prawns served as follows: a small, ceramic pot has oil poured into it. A spoon of garlic butter & some fresh chilli is then placed in the oil. This ceramic pot is then placed on the gas stove & the oil heated. Once the oil is bubbling away, the prawns are added. Once cooked, the pot is brought to you (oil still bubbling away) & you dig in. What’s even better is you can dip your bread in this oil !!

Observations of Spanish Culture

I have to share with you a sight we saw by the Central Markets in Valencia on Saturday morning, that, to me, sums up the Spanish attitude to life.

As we were sitting there munching away on our breakfast, we saw two old guys at the table next to us. They’ve probably known each other forever & probably have been coming to this cafe everydays for years. They certainly carried on that way.

They were having a grand old time with their coffee, their bottle of red wine, puffing away on a cigar & knocking back the odd glass of liqueur...all before 10.30am !! None of this eating a balanced breakfast first thing in the morning. These guys were enjoying life the way they knew how to.

Final thoughts on Spain

I did quite love Spain. They have a great culture with terrific food & a wonderful attitude to life. Staying at the “Casa Parker” & being shown around places that you wouldn’t normally see if you didn’t have friends immersing themselves in the culture (thanks B. & G.) really made for agreat experience.

The only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth was being targetted by pick-pockets three times in the space of a week (this only happened in Madrid). The third time, they nearly got my wallet…I caught the guy red-handed, reaching into my pocket. The bastard !! So if you’re travelling to Madrid & are using the Metro (a quite easy & effecient system to get around the city), beware of folks crowding around you, especially if they have a jacket over their arm (all the better to hide the other hand reaching for your wallet).

Well...that’s for this posting.

The next posting will be from Italy so, until then, take care !!


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What a difference a continent makes

Hola from Spain !!

Well....I´ve been in spain now for a week & a bit. It´s a whole different world over here !! The weather has been quite warm with the temperatures reaching into the thirties. I´m kinda wondering why I brought all that cold weather gear. Oh yeah !!! Ireland in November !! The countryside everywhere is quite dry.

Highlights of this trip so far....

The Parker tour of Madrid, taking in all the famous landmarks, as well as all the tapas bars, beer places & coffee shops in between. A nice, laid back introduction to Madrid.

The Prado Museum....filled to the rafters with works by artists such as El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Reubens & Tiziano. About 4-5 hrs of looking these paintings was quite enough culture for me.

The Bull fighting Arena (Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventras): it kind of brings home exactly what goes on here when you see the bloodstains still in the sand & the drag marks where the body of the bull is dragged off the arena. More about bullfighting later....

The Palacio Real (The Royal Palace) is quite a spectacular place with tapestries, paintings & other stuff seeming to fill every available space. The Palace also houses: the Farmacia Real (the Royal Pharmacy) where medicines used to cure the Royal family of their ills were created & stored; the Armeria Real (the Royal Armoury) impressive collection of armours & weapons.

The Egyptian Temple of Debod: yep !! An actual Egyptian temple (complete with ye-olde Egyptian carvings) saved from the floodwaters of the Asswan Dam. It seems a little out of place in downtown Madrid but it´s interesting to look through.

Wandering the cobbled streets of Toledo, checking out the Cathedral, wandering through the Jewish quarter, checking out some of Goya´s artworks, window shopping for that two-handed sword I´ve always wanted, window shopping for a genuine samurai sword (made in Toledo with Toledo steel), window shopping for that Crusader outfit I´ve always wanted to take to the Middle East.......

Spending an afternoon with fellow Australians at a hockey match (which we got in for free), which turned out to be the final of the Women´s World Cup Hockey Tournament. Australia were playing Holland. Our little enclave of Australians, set amongst the Dutch crowd, cheered the Australian girls on but it didn´t help. Australia lost 3-1.

Wandering through the Mezquita Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba. The Mezquita started life off as Cordoba´s mosque. It´s beautifully decorated with a veritable forest of red & white pillars & archways. In the 16th Century, after the Christians had re-taken Cordoba, a Cathedral was built in the middle of the Mosque. It looks quite strange to see the Christian centre, surrounded by this forest of pillars & archways. I have to say that the arab parts of the Mezquita are much prettier. The Arabs certainly knew how to make buildings architecturally beautiful.

Wandering through the gardens & fountains of the Alcazar de Los Reynes Cristianos (Castle of the Christian Monarchs) in Cordoba. It was quite a beautiful & relaxing place to be in (lots of tourists though !!).

My impressions of Spanish culture

They certainly are different these Spanish. I had it in my head that they are like Italians but it´s not quite the same. The men & women are elegant (like the Italians). They dress to impress & they dress to be noticed. Some of the things they wear (esp. the women) you definately notice !!

I was hoping that my Italian would come in handy when speaking to the Spanish. It has in some respects but not all the time. I am struggling with the language a bit & I find that I´m mixing my Spanish (bad though it is) with Italian, in a blend I call Spaliano. The locals seem to find it amusing. I do know enough to be able to order a beer, a glass of wine, a coffee & tapas (what more do you need to know ??). OK.....being able to book a train ticket (to the right place, at the right time & day) is important too

Everything shuts down between the hours of 2-5pm for the Siesta. The siesta is a serious business here !!

They eat at weird hours (compared to Australia) & that has taken a little getting used to. Lunch for them starts between 2-3pm. They eat dinner incredibly late !! You wouldn´t be seen in a restaurant until at least 9pm (more likely 10pm). The eariest that a restaurant will open is at about 8pm (& that´s to cater for the tourists).

Bullfighting is a very serious business here. The Spanish love their brave bullfighters just as much as they love a brave bull. The brave bull will still be killed; it´s head mounted in a prominent place somewhere & a plaque saying ¨Here is the brave bull xxxxxx¨ All the bulls have names & if he´s killed any bullfighters, it´ll mention that too. Go figure !! They don´t see a problem with what happens in the arena ( least not the older generation). It´s all tradition going back a long way.

Food experiences

Where do I start ??? Firstly......Spain is not for the faint-hearted or the vegetarian (more of that later).

The main food that takes pride of place in Spanish culture is the Jamon (air-dried leg of ham). Think of it a prosciutto but different: unlike prosciutto, the leg bone is left on & the Jamon is sliced down the length of the bone (in small, wafer-thin slices). The process used to dry it is different as well. There is a whole culture around the Jamon (esp. when it is first sliced). There is a chain of shop here called ¨Museo de Jamon¨ (Museum of Ham) that simply sells Jamon, Jamon sandwiches, etc.....The smell, as you walk into a store, is something else. I´ve also seen a place called ¨El Paradisio del Jamon¨ (Ham Paradise) that is the same.

Now.....about vegetarianism. The Spanish consider Jamon as a vegetarian dish so be warned.

I´ve tried blood pudding (Burgos). Can't say that I found it that interesting to be honest (sorry B & G).

The Tapas is great...small servings of all sorts of things that is quite cheap. I simply pick something that sounds interesting & hope that it´s not kidneys or offal of any sort. Haven´t had that happen to me yet !!

There is a bull-fighter´s bar near Plaza Major that was an interesting place to eat tapas at. Everywhere you looked on the walls were bullfighting pictures (some nasty ones of bullfighters being gored) & heads of bulls.

Oh !!! Before I forget !! Can anyone tell me why the Spanish, when they serve their coffee, have sugar satchels that are twice the size of normal packaging ?? The bloody things have between 2 - 2.5 teaspoons of sugar in them !!

The eating highlight was Cafe Real. It´s a nice little restaurant that just happens to be in the Real Madrid stadium & overlooks the Real Madrid home pitch. That was a pretty amazing place to eat.

Well....that´s it for this posting. I´ve got a few admin things to do today here in Cordoba. The next time I post, it´ll probably be from Italy but will include my last few days in Spain.

Until then....take care.