Culture

July 14, 2015 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

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Baklava. What could the syrupy, nut-ified, largely Middle Eastern treat (that I’ve confessed my undying love to) have to do with Barcelona? Oh something, alright.

 

And I’ll get to that, but first let’s back up to a couple of months ago, when I set off to Costa Brava for a conference. Wanting to maximize my kid-free visit to the region, I decided to spend some extra time in the big seaside city.

 

Barcelona and I have this weird relationship, though. I’ve been there countless times, at least three of which were on my own. Though I’m a big fan of solo travel — the way it empowers me and heightens my senses — it changes how I experience a place, particularly when it comes to food. Perhaps you can imagine how you might not bravely elbow your way up to a packed bar, or sit down for a long meal across from an empty chair. Sometimes you will, but sometimes you won’t, and, when you do, it will be different than if you were with someone else. Still great, but different.

 

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My first trip to Barcelona, in 2006, was a solo trip

Indeed, Barcelona and I have had a lot of solo meals together. So when I recently went back to the city – alone, again – I decided to work on our weird relationship. I’d join a food tour. Me, Barcelona, other people, and food. Perfect!

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It would be a Devour Barcelona Food Tour, to be exact — and for good reason. You might remember that I joined their Madrid tour a while back, a euphoric experience that had me high on Madrid life and local cuisine. Naturally, having the opportunity to do so in Barcelona was a no-brainer.

 

So come along with me (virtually) as I flash back to my foodie bonding session with Barcelona, which, believe it or not, has something to do with baklava.

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First we set off to sample this sausage-y sandwich. Don’t be fooled by its less-than-impressive appearance, though. That meat you see there is called butifarra, a specialty of the region of Catalonia, and which tastes like heaven when heated up and served atop a fresh baguette that has been rubbed all up and down with tomato.

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Then we went to the Mercat de l’Albaceria Central, the Gracia neighborhood’s central market, and a less-touristy alternative to Barcelona’s fan-favorite La Boqueria. This market epitomizes all things local, from the people, to the fresh-from-the-nearby-sea fish, and of course the ready-to-be-devoured eats (like this fatty platter of cheese and fruity membrillo).

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At our next stop, we sampled one of Barcelona’s most signature and storied tapas, the bomba. It’s probably not that hard to imagine why this could possibly be called a “bomb” — I mean, look at that thing! But there is more to its name than just the fact that it’s a spicy and flavor-packed fried ball of calories. The culinary creation was concocted in the 1920s to represent the anarchist attitude of the times, thus the tapa resembles a bomb both visually and in terms of its explosive flavor. BOOM.

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And behold: the moment you’ve been waiting for (or was that just me?): the BAKLAVA.

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No, you aren’t imagining things — baklava is not a Spanish or Catalan creation. But this is the part that I especially love about this tour: that it featured a food speciality created by one of the city’s esteemed immigrants, who forms an integral part of the community here.

 

(Also, it’s baklava, so I really don’t even need a beautiful backstory to justify why its inclusion is awesome.)

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At this point I was in a baklava stupor (which might have contributed to the fact that I bought a whole extra to-go tray of it, which I swear I could hear calling my name from the bag, just begging me to eat more). But there was more non-baklava food to be had, like this fuet-topped bread with a side of pickled anchovies, both meant to be washed down with that glass filled with dense, red vermouth.

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Then there were these meatballs swimming in some magical sauce along with perfectly tender garbanzos. But honestly, my mind was still on the baklava.

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Finally, we moved on to our last stop, a sweet little cafe-meets-bakery. And just when I thought I might have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom for a baklava binge, these little guys came along. Called cremats, the chilled slices of poundcake-like goodness came topped with a dollop of crema catalana (similar to creme brulee). Between the texture, temperature and hypnotizingly delicious flavor, I quickly tuned out the call of my beloved, stored-away baklava. I’d found a new love.

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Well, until I left and hopped on the bus to my conference, at which point I cracked open that box and — among new friends and no longer alone — nearly polished off the entire thing. Indeed, I’d finally forged that missing bond with Barcelona, and this time with good company, and, of course, baklava.

 

 

*Full disclosure: Devour Barcelona Food Tours generously invited me along as a guest on this excursion. Tasty food is sacred to me, so rest assured that my rave reviews are legit.

**If you’re keen to join the tour, note that this post hasn’t even covered all of the amazing foods we tried and stops we visited! 

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March 27, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia

Camels and sheikhs and robot jockeys, oh my! That’s pretty much all I could think the whole time I was at the Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack, which is situated in the sandy and relatively undeveloped outskirts of Dubai. At the races to do research for an article, I was able to ride around the track in a chase car, stuff myself with loads of free baklava, and get within dreamy distance of the Crown Prince of Dubai.


It was a wild Middle Eastern adventure to be sure, one which allowed me to get acquainted with a softer side of the city, minus all the looming skyscrapers and perfectly manicured streets. While I may have to tease you about my experience (coming soon to an in-flight magazine near you), here are some shots of the event’s most surreal moments. Also, my friend Holly, who graciously hosted me, provides a brilliant recap of the races over on her blog, so be sure to check it out!


The finish line at the races is a jumble of camels, robots, SUVs and royalty

Robot jockeys replace what used to be child jockeys, which were banned back in 2002

The Crown Prince of Dubai, AKA Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum

A winning camel after being slathered with a saffron mixture

Striking a pose with my new camel peeps

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February 22, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia

My trip to Dubai in summary: camel races, surprise boxes of baklava, and up-close-and-almost-personal sheikh encounters. Yes, yes, I might just have to stay.


More to come soon…

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February 13, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Wafts of tasty fumes seeped from my friend Nacho’s outdoor brick oven. It was 2pm and if my stomach could talk it would have said, “oh yes, come to mama.”


But there was a slight problem: Cooking inside that oven were two of my biggest food foes.



You might remember that years ago, after pretending to be a shepherd for a day, I fell in love with sheep. I snuggled with lambies and made buddies with a sheep named Numantina. Since then, I decided that – as illogical as it may seem – I would not, could not, eat lamb (except for that trip to Turkey, during which exceptions had to be made, obviously). And I’ve stuck to it pretty steadfastly, even putting in special effort to avoid forming relationships with other lovable-but-tasty animals, like full-grown Wilbur-style pigs (lest that leave me feeling compelled to give up my beloved jamón).


Last weekend I was faced with two baby farm friends, though, that would challenge my resolve: a suckling pig, called cochinillo, and lechazo, a lamb that had only drunk its mother’s milk. Inside that oven, the cuddly little critters roasted. Yes, I would eat bread and salad, and nothing more, I affirmed to myself.



Oh but then came lunch, in a setting that infused me with me Spanish-ness. Warmed by a glowing fire, my mind danced with images of a castañuela-clicking flamenco dancer, and a bullfighter waving the electric-pink cape that hung on the wall beside me. It was as though the room were filled with propaganda solely for the purpose of converting me into a lamb-loving, baby-pig-craving, meat-eating Spaniard. Grrr, Spain!



The others at our table of eight relished each bite of the clay-pot-cooked creations. Meanwhile, I cowardly dipped and dunked my bread in the lamb broth, savoring the rich flavor without fully committing. Jacobo wouldn’t let it be so, though, oh no. He taunted me with me a fork-full of lechazo, insisting, deviously, that I try it.


And then it happened: I indulged in a few beautiful, perfectly cooked, decadent bites of lamb. It was brief and magical, and, like (the country of) Turkey, a worthy exception to the rule.



Now, being the completely contradictory eater that I am, I think I’m going to treat myself to a fat plate of jamón ibérico. All this talk of pig and Spanish food has really made me hungry.

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January 3, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia

The Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel: Iconic masterpieces like these often seem larger than life. But then you see them in person and, well, there they are, larger than something and no doubt impressive, although maybe not as large and magnificent as you’d anticipated after all those years of hype and history books.


The Taj Mahal, however, is not one of those places.



I initially saw the Taj while seated on a distant rooftop, where I munched on a lunch of spicy rice and yogurt-dipped naan bread. The architectural marvel, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his *favorite* wife, peeked above the skyline like a mirage amidst a sea of trees. It was intriguing to be sure, but still a distant, almost incomprehensible speck, like trying to fathom the size of a city from a plane 35,000 feet above.



Tummies full, we joined the groups of Indians trekking down a long road to the Taj. The families were making the pilgrimage from all around the nation – an irony not lost on me considering that Candace and I had recently completed our very own pilgrimage on the Camino only months before.




Along the way, we folded into the crowd, joining them like family, making friends, sharing snap shops of who we, where we were from and why we were there. Oddly enough, not unlike the Camino, I felt bonded to my walking companions in an impossibly short amount of time and, in many cases, without even exchanging any words. I think we all shared the same enthusiastic twinkle in our eyes born out of an eagerness to know one another, not to mention the treasure at the end of our path. So it was bittersweet when we arrived at the Taj entrance and had to part, Indian citizens going through one line and Candace and I through another.



I don’t much remember the moments between leaving my new Indian friends and those few that followed; I was too distracted by what lie ahead. While I’d seen the Taj from a rooftop, once I was on street level it had disappeared, tempting me in its absence. But finally it appeared once again, revealed through a key-hole gate, where it grew larger and more radiant as we crossed the threshold.



And there it was. Somehow all the tufts of trees seemed to fall away – it was as though the skyline that I’d seen from the rooftop had vaporized into nothing, and that the Taj were now sitting on a gigantic platter for all to see. There must have been thousands of us scattered on the land that surrounded it, and yet we somehow fell away too, insignificant and nearly invisible in comparison (well, except for this darling little guy below).



Indeed, it was large and it was magnificent. And it turns out that even hype and history books can’t overstate the magic that is the Taj Mahal.

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