Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Tastes of Spain: Part 2

Spain is famous for it’s tapas food. You might say that when people talk about Spanish food, tapas is the first thing that comes to mind. During our time in Barcelona, Cara and I were excited to find some good quality tapas to sink our teeth into. After doing a little bit of research, we found a bar which boosted to have, not only the best tapas in Barcelona, but the best tapas in spain. This bar was called "Quimet & Quimet”. 

Many bars and cafe’s claim to have the best tapas around, but Quimet & Quimet had glowing reviews from many different travel websites. So with that in mind, our expectations were high and we were excited to see what they had to offer. As we arrived to the little cafe style bar, we were instantly impressed with the wide variety of wines along with the range of fresh foods. We’d heard that Quimet & Quimet pride themselves on freshness. The tapas on offer included, fresh seafood such as prawns, salmon, sardines and anchoivies, a variety of olives, stuffed peppers, a selection of breads served with olive oil for dipping, along with much more. But one thing that the team at Quimet obviously loved was cheese. The variety of cheeses was astounding.  So with this in mind, Cara and I had some tough decisions on what to order. We decided to get a nice glass of white wine and a selection of breads, olives, prawns and the famous cheese selection. 

The bread selection was a mixture of the basic pita bread, crusty bread, croutons and water crackers. It also included some homemade olive bread and chilli bread which was all very tasty. The freshness of these breads made the taste amazing just on it’s own, but it gets even better when mixed with different oils and stuffed peppers. The prawn dish was a very elaborate concoction which consisted of a slice of olive bread, a marinated pepper, with a king prawn on top and finally finished of with a spoonful of black caviar. I’m not much of a seafood eater, but I couldn’t resist trying something new and this was a dish I knew would be hard to find anywhere else in the world. We weren’t disappointed either. I expected a strong "fishy" flavour, but it surprised me. It did contain a seafood taste, but the peppers and the olive bread balanced the dish out nicely which made it so enjoyable to eat. Our olives were just a simple serving of chilli and garlic marinated olives, but freshness goes a long way, which made these olives very tasty. Lasty was our outstanding cheese selection. If you are a cheese fiend and just happen to be in Barcelona, Quimet & Quimet is an absolute must. The selection was amazing. I wish I knew what all the cheeses were, but I just couldn’t tell. There were flavours which we couldn’t pick. The obvious ones were, goat’s cheese, blue cheese, feta and mozzarella, but the others I couldn’t tell.  It didn’t matter though. We were both enjoying our tapas and savouring every bite. As we continued eating, we looked at some of the other delicacies on offer. Olives stuffed with sardines, Salmon served with yogurt and truffle honey, mussels and clams all seem to be popular. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the menu was predominately seafood tapas. There was a meat selection, which seemed to be very similar to an Italian anti-pasti meal. So we decided to stay clear of that and try some different things, and we are so glad we did. 

By the end, we both agreed that we’d definitely found the best tapas in Barcelona, maybe even Spain. Our visit to Quimet & Quimet was certainly one of the highlights of our trip to Barcelona. We hope to return to Spain in the future to try some more tapas and see if anyone can rivals the food we’ve had. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Tastes of Spain: Part 1

After another amazing trip to Italy, it was time to make our way back to Glasgow. But first we had to make a quick stop over in Barcelona. This was out first trip to Spain. We were excited about spending the last few days of our trip, eating tapas, drinking sangria and relaxing on the beach. 

As we walked the streets of Barcelona, I couldn’t help but notice the many influences in the food and drinks. Some of the bars and restaurants were very much influenced by Mexico, offering nachos, tortillas, enchiladas along with margaritas. Then I noticed the popularity of Mojitos and Caipirinha’s (Cuban cocktails) throughout many establishments. It’s not what I expected in Spain.  Despite the wide variety of food and drinks, there is one Spanish icon which is sold everywhere you go, Sangria. A Sangria is a mixer of red (or white) wine, fruit juices and chopped fruit pieces. It’s also common to add some herbs and spices to your sangria for extra flavour. If you’re interested in the history of the sangria, I covered it in a previous blog post (“The Sangria”).  

We were both very excited about trying a new cuisine during our time in Spain. No surprise one of the most popular dishes in Barcelona is 'Paella’. Paella is a simple dish which consists of rice, meat and vegetables, all mixed together and cooked in a large pan. In fact, the word “Paella” comes from the latin word ‘patella’ which means pan.  It was first served in Valencia in the mid-19th century, and today it is seen as Spain’s national dish.  Paella is not often cooked for only one person. It’s a dish which is made in large quantities with the idea being that you share your meal with the people you are with. The sharing philosophy is relevant to most of the food and drink in Spain. The sangria is shared amongst the group, as is the tapas and the paella.  

On this occasion, Cara and I decided to order the chicken paella to go with our sangria. But looking at the menu, there seemed to be endless choices of paella. Offerings of rabbit, duck, pork, seafood, vegetarian and even snail paella all seemed to be popular. It came out from the kitchen still sizzling. After our long day, we didn’t waste time waiting for it to cool down, we dug straight in. What we both loved about the paella is the level of flavour from such a simple dish. The chicken was well seasoned and marinated. This helped to also flavour the rice and vegetables. There was also a strong saffron flavour throughout the dish which is common in many paella’s. Coriander and thyme also featured  heavily in our meal.  There was also a nice smokey taste, which comes from cooking over an open fire. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal. We knew that it would not be our last paella whilst we were in Spain.

It was a warm night in Barcelona, so after our meal, we walked back to the hotel enjoying a hot summers night, similar to Australia.  On our walk we reflected on the day and looked ahead to the rest of our time in Spain. We both agreed that we needed to seek out some quality spanish tapas before we leave. Many of the places we had passed were of course offering many dishes on their tapas menu, but we found it to be much like Italian anti-pasti. We wanted something different, something that we’d never seen nor tried before. So the search was on.   

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Aperol & Fernet Branca

After an amazing few days in Venice, we jumped on board a train and took a trip back to Milan. As we were only there not even 2 months ago, the city was fresh in our minds. We easily were able to navigate our way around, as our plan was to show Cara’s mum and dad the famous Duomo Cathedral. The weather was again hot in Milan and we were all in need of some drinks. I noticed next to the cathedral was a small bar which specialised in serving Aperol drinks. This looked like the place to sit and relax. 

Without a doubt, Campari dominates cocktail menus in Italy. It’s the base to some of the most iconic Italian cocktails in history. But the Campari company also released another aperitif, Aperol. This product has always been in the shadow of Campari. It was first created in 1919, but did not become popular in Italy until after the second world war. With Campari being such a strong bitter flavour (which many people either loved or hated), Aperol was designed to be a lighter, softer alternative. It’s 11% alcohol rating makes it less than half the strength of Campari. Only in recent years, the Aperol name and brand has stepped out of the shadows and come into it’s own. In 2010, Aperol won the highest accolade possible by winning a double gold medal at San Fransisco’s World Spirits Competition. By far the most common Aperol drink to order is an “Aperol Spritz”. This is simply a single shot of Aperol, topped with lemonade and garished with a slice of orange, or lemon. It’s a light refreshing drink, perfect for a hot summers day in Milan. 

As I often do when we are in bars, I like to take a look at the back-bar, to see what else they have decided to stock. There is one product which I’ve noticed in all Italian bars. It is a product which is a household name in Italy, but a bit of a mystery abroad, It’s Fernet Branca. This unusual and lesser known spirit has a dark colour and a syrupy texture. Some have said it’s similar to Jagermiester. It’s flavour has been compared to a mixture of medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud. It’s exact recipe is a closely guarded secret, but what we do know, is that it’s production (both recipe and process) are still same as when it was first produced in 1845. 

Milan is the birthplace of Fernet Branca. It was created by Bernardino Branca at the Fratelli Branca Distillery. This spirit was claimed by Bernardino to have many health benefits. It could be used as a  digestive, to reduce fever, cure stomach bugs, along with being a basic warming medicine when you felt cold. It was said to be a “revolutionary liqueur”. This argument became useful during the prohibition years where Fernet Branca could claim that it was a type of medicine, which still made the sale of it legal.  

In the hot summer sun, I felt today may not have been the best time to try a Fernet Branca cocktail. I’m sure I’ll have the chance to try some again soon.  I was happy with sipping on my Aperol spritz, sitting in front of the Duomo Cathedral and enjoying the sun. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Our Visit to Harry’s Bar

One thing that Venice is fantastic for, is it’s wide variety of cafe’s, restuarants and bars. There is seemingly a place to sit, eat and drink on every corner. But out of all these places, there was only one which Cara and I were excited to visit, the famous “Harry’s Bar”. In the bartending community, Harry’s Bar is seen to be the pioneer of cocktail bars. So it was our mission to see if Harry’s was really all it is cracked up to be.

Giuseppe Cipriani
Outside his Bar in 1931
Harry’s Bar is said to be the first specialist cocktail bar to be opened. It was founded by Italian man, Giuseppe Cipriani. Giuseppe was born in Verona in 1900. His family immigrated to Germany, where he went to school and soon began working in a factory just before the first world war. When the war broke out the family fled back to Verona, where Giuseppe found work in a pastry kitchen. This is where his love for the hospitality industry started. After working in the pastry kitchen for a number of years, he decided to become a waiter in other restuarants. During this time Giuseppe moved for place to place only staying until he felt like he could learn no more at that particular establishment.  He traveled and worked throughout France, Belgium and Italy, finally settling in Venice where he got a job as a bartender in the Hotel Europa. The Europa is a luxury hotel which is still running in Venice today.  The hotel bar became a regular hang-out for the European and Venetian elite.  During this time at the Europa hotel, Giuseppe learnt and became passionate about cocktails. His dream then became to open his own bar, which was just as   elite and luxurious, but not attached with a hotel. It was a be a specialist cocktail bar. His only problem was his of lack of money to make this dream and reality.  

Whilst working at the Hotel Europa, Guiseppe became friends with a young American man called Harry Pickering. Harry had come to Venice with his aunt in the hope to cure his drinking problem. This attempt was hopeless as Harry spent most of his days sitting in the hotel bar. This caused Harry and his aunt to fall out. His aunt left Harry with no money and she returned to America.  Giuseppe lent Harry money to help him survive and not long after, Harry disappeared. After months of not seeing or hearing from Harry, Giuseppe gave up all hope of ever seeing his money again. Then in February 1931, Harry Pickering returned to the Hotel Europa and repaid Giuseppe his money, plus an extra 30,000 lira to say thank you and also to give Giuseppe the opportunity to finally open his bar.  Giuseppe went and opened his bar and suitably named it “Harry’s Bar”.  The bar opened on May 13th 1931. Coincidentally, this is the same day in 1806 where the word “Cocktail” was first published in print.

As we walked into Harry’s Bar, you really got the impression that the bar still looks exactly the same today as it did when it first opened. A waiter dressed in a smart white suit, sat as down and gave us the menu to look over. As in most bars in Italy, we were also given complementary serving of olives.  Sitting in Harry’s Bar you really got a sense of history. The menu is very minimal. It seems that the cocktail menu is exactly the same as it was back in 1931.  I think it’s nice that they are re-creating the original look and feel of the bar. As Cara and I both discussed our thoughts on Harry’s Bar, we both agreed that, if you are trying to recreate history and offer a very minimal menu and selling drinks at very exorbitant prices, the standard needs to be extremely high. Unfortunately when we saw Cara’s Bellini being mass produced in a shaker tin along with 3 other orders our expectation of quality started to fade. When her drink arrived, it looked nice and tasted ok, but that was all. It was just ok. During our travels through Italy, Cara has become a bit of an expert on Bellini’s and Rossini’s. She said that she has had better Bellini’s from other bars and we’ve paid a third of the price. I guess thats what you get when you mass produce cocktails. You get a drink which is just ok.  I ordered a classic Italian cocktail, the Negroni (gin, campari & sweet vermouth). My drink was a little better. A nice balance of sweetness and bitterness. But a Negroni is a simple classic, it’s hard to go wrong.  As we chatted some more, we really started to notice the finer details which really disappointed us. We noticed that the waiter had served us our drinks on a creased, almost crumpled napkin. In any other bar, we’d not have a problem with this. But in Harry’s Bar, of all bars, where you expect everything to be that little bit better than your average bar, it just wasn’t.  

So as we finished our drinks and left, we departed with mixed emotions. On the one hand we were thankful and happy for the experiance. It’s something that we’ll never forget. It was amazing to see something which is such a huge part of cocktail history. But on the other hand, we were disappointed, that the bar has lost it’s way. The passion of serving amazing drinks with outstanding service, seems to not be a priority anymore. The name and reputation of Harry’s Bar seems to be all that they are relying on. As far as Cara and I were concerned, we were happy that we’d been and done it. It’s just another thing we can tick off the list.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Italian Job

It seems that Cara and I just can’t stay away from Italy. We’ve done Rome, we’ve done Milan and Lake Como, but now it was time for us to visit the city of Venice. It was also Cara’s parents first visit to Italy, so they were just as excited as us to explore the canals and tiny alley ways of Venice.

Venice is a place famous for it’s beautiful scenery, It’s architecture and It’s artworks. The city is seemingly one island, but it is in fact made up of 118 small islands all linked together with hundreds of footbridges. It’s history dates back to the ancient roman times. The roman soldiers built and used Venice to flee mainland attacks. No one is sure when the romans first lived in venice, but the city was first officially founded on the 25th March, 421 AD, with the opening of the first church, the San Giacomo di Rialto. Since this day, a further 148 churches have been built and Venice has expanded to now have a population of around 270,000 people living on the islands. Known as the “Floating City”, it’s visited by approximately 20 million tourists a year.

One of the fun things about Venice is exploring the canals and It’s alley ways. It’s easy to get lost as the streets get narrow and wind through around the waterways. Whilst we explored, we walked past several little shops offering Italian souvenirs, I noticed that little bottles of limoncello were a popular item. Limoncello is huge in Italy. It’s common to finish off a meal with a small nip of this sweet digestive.  The Italians have been producing limoncello since the early 1900’s. It was homemade, by simply soaking lemon peals and zest with grain alcohol until all the oils are released, then mixed with sugar syrup and chilled and served ice cold. In 1988, Italian business-man, Massimo Canale became the first person to trademark the name “limoncello” and began mass production and selling of the product. The bottles of Massimo Canale’s limoncello were instantly popular in the local shops and markets throughout Italy and it was soon being exported to other countries. Limoncello is now an Italian icon, hence it’s popularity in the souvenir shops throughout Venice.

After a busy day, Cara and I decided to spend a night out at a local jazz bar, tucked away in a little lane-way just off the Grand Canal.  I couldn’t resist ordering one of the house specialities, a “Miles Davis”. A cocktail which had many similarities to a Long Island Iced Tea. It consisted of gin, vodka, rum, blue curacao (orange flavoured liqueur), grenadine, a dash of lemon juice and topped up with lemonade, all built in a tall glass over ice. Not the most original drink, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the correlation this cocktail had to the man Miles Davis himself.  What ever the reason, it didn’t matter. We were in Venice sipping cocktails and listening to jazz, both reflecting on how lucky we are to be doing what we are doing.

“Miles Davis”
Built in a Tall Glass over Ice
15ml Gin
15ml Vodka
15ml Rum
15ml Blue Curacao
15ml Grenadine
A Dash of Lemon Juice
Top up with Lemonade