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Eating my way around Europe

The summer of travel has come to an end.  It was a fantastic trip that I will continue to relive here for the next few months. One of my favorite things about travel is sampling the unique cuisine that each place has to offer.  Three of my favorites this summer come from Croatia, Belgium and Spain.

Croatia – Geography lent a hand to Croatian cuisine. Located just over the Adriatic from Italy, many Italian flavors are also found in Croatia.  Location helped, but sitting outside, overlooking the Adriatic in Split I ate one of the best pizza’s I have ever had. While I feel odd ordering pizza while traveling, I felt justified given that it is essentially local cuisine here.  Nothing fancy, nothing special, just a well made pizza with fresh ingredients that hit the spot on a warm summer afternoon.

Belgium – I loved the food of Belgium, in fact, I could get used to eating waffles, french fries and Belgian Beer for pretty much every meal, especially the waffles and beer. The waffles come in multiple versions, but my favorite are the Liege waffles that are made with pearl sugar that caramelizes inside the waffle. Each bite has a sweet taste that makes for great snacking. Strawberries, chocolate, ice cream, cherries and numerous other topping are available if you feel that your waffle needs an extra boost but most of the time I was content with just the plain waffle.

Even though many Germans, Irish and others would disagree, I believe that Belgian beer is in a different league from the beers of the rest of the world. I visited the Cantillion brewery, home to one of the last breweries that still uses spontaneous fermentation (use of wild yeasts that offer a somewhat less predictable end product) in their brewing process. Cantillion specializes in Lambic beers. These often feature fruity flavors, raspberry (framboise) and cherry (krieke) are two common flavors, but the winner for me at Cantillion was the Gueuze. Gueuze is made by blending different aged Lambics together which forms a brew that is tart and acidic, very refreshing and often compared to sparkling wine.  It is simply delicious.

Spain – It has been 12 years since I had my first taste of Spanish food and over that time it has become one of my favorite cuisines.  I had been looking forward to my first trip to Spain for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest was to taste sangria, paella, tapas and jamon in the land that created them. Spain did not dissapoint.  While this trip did not bring me to Valencia, the home of Paella, we still did manage to find some good paella in Madrid.  The highlight however, was the sangria.  We rarely left an establishment without trying their sangria.  These cups ranged from small to large, good to fantastic.  Only once did I have a glass that I would not go back for and this was at a place that was trying to kick us out so they could close, keeping love and care from this glass.  The best was had at a bar in Pamplona the night before running with the bulls.  It was sweet and fruity, with a great balance of flavor and just enough kick to remind you that you were drinking alcohol.  Forced to drink this for the rest of my life, I don’t think I would argue. 

The tapas were fantastic, especially various iterations of goat cheese on bread and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes).  Many a night was spent going from one bar to another to compare what each had to offer.  It made for full but happy stomachs.  The final highlight was jamon or Spanish ham.  The ham in Spain is nothing like the cold cuts I had on sandwiches back in grade school.  The ham in Spain is serious business.  For the most expensive (over 200 euro per kilo) the pigs are allowed to eat all of the acorns  they want before a long smoking process.  Less expensive (being a relative term here) ham was fantastic, full of flavor and texture.  Shop after shop featured these hams hung from the ceiling, just tempting shoppers to come in and sample the wares.

Many other meals were spectacular but perhaps because of my expectations before the trip these three experiences remained the most memorable.

**For other food related blogging check out the posts from my awesome sister at her blog pomelosunshine.com**

the Balkans (part 2)

Croatia unveiled new surprises at every turn, from the stunning vista’s to the delicious food that utilized the wonderfully fresh local ingredients.  The highlight though, at least for me was Montenegro.  This is a country that is tucked between its neighbors with a population approximately equal to my neighborhood in Beijing.  The sparse population is just one of the stars of this small country.  The warmth and generosity of the people, the stunning natural beauty and the low costs all make this a place I want to spend more time in.  I only had two days here, but in this time I fell in love with this small country.  The mountains reached right to the waters edge evoking memories of the stunning fjords in Norway.  I only had a taste of this beauty but I hope to get back to discover more of it.

My third and final stop was in the city that perhaps has the most interesting history in the region, Sarajevo.  I had just enough time to hit the highlights which for me were the reminders of this cities role in the last century of World History.  In just a few hours I visited the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated; the act that eventually led to the beginning of World War I, some of the venues used in the 1984 Winter Olympics, the Sarajevo Hagada (the Sarajevo Hagada is the subject of Geraldine Brooks’ fantastic People of the Book.  If you have not read it find a copy) and finally Sniper’s Alley, the road in from the airport that was too dangerous for most civilians to travel along during the war between former Yugoslav countries due to the many snipers that hid in the numerous high rise building that line the road that leads from the airport into Sarajevo’s Old City.  Beyond the history, Sarajevo is also a place of great beauty, ringed by mountains.  It would look right at home in alpine Switzerland or Austria.

This region has been home to more than its share of conflict over the years, but is a place of extreme beauty on par with anything else that Europe has to offer.  Hopefully in the coming years it will embrace it most recent history as a place of beauty and tourism instead of its near past as a place of conflict.

the Balkans (part 1)

To explain the Balkans takes way more education and expertise than I have.  What I can offer is an explanation of what I learned and experienced in my two weeks there.

The Balkans are one of the most historically troubled regions in recent history.  This region sits between the Greek Peninsula and Italy and thus at a crossroads in cultures.  It has been the scene of numerous conflicts dating back to the Roman Empire and continuing to recent history.  The reminders of the most recent conflict, the war between former Yugoslav republics are still visible in many parts of the regions.  Building pockmarked by bullet holes leaves reminders of the violence that so recently affected the region.  This violence is a recent memory for many people still living in these countries but the animosity, while impossible to forget seems as though it has been buried, replaced by an embrace on life today, a life that is being increasingly affiliated with Western Europe after years behind the Iron Curtain.  A taxi driver shared with my that due to Tito’s cunning (not something that would be PC to say in the west), Croatia was left in a better position since Yugoslavia and particularly Croatia tried to play both sides during the Cold War, gaining technology and aid from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R..  While I wonder of the veracity of his claims, what is clear is that Croatia came out of the recent war in comparatively better shape than Bosnia and Serbia.  This is due in part, to the help of NATO forces that aided in the war efforts throughout the region, joining to help before much of the violence reached Croatia, keeping Croatian casualties much lower than in the neighboring countries.

Croatia is a deserved success story in terms of modern travel marketing.  The country has a plenty to offer in terms of scenery, cuisine and history.  While best known for Dubrovnik, I found other parts of the country to be more spectacular.  Dubrovnik is a beautiful old city that deserves a day or two to explore, wandering though the alleys of the old town, ducking into shops and cafes in between time spent wandering the city wall gazing at the ocean. But the real highlights of Croatia lay elsewhere along the Dalmatian Coast where stunning panoramas of where the mountains come to meet the water painted in unbelievable tones of blue.  Elsewhere along the coast there are historic sights such as the Diocletian Palace in Split, as well as sailing, kayaking and beaches on the Islands of the Adriatic. Getting away from the coast offers other experiences, such as the vibrant cafe culture in Zagreb, the turquoise mountain lakes separated by waterfalls in Plitvice National Park and twisting mountain roads that border olive groves.

to be continued next entry…

Categories: Matt Explains Tags: , ,

Images from Croatia

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