The quintessential high tea experience at London’s Hotel Café Royal

There is perhaps no dining experience more quintessentially British than a proper high tea. And when one has so many fine tea rooms to choose from, how does one do so? Discover how here!

A truly great high tea experience has been on my bucket list since my first trip to London 15 years ago. I finally had the experience about which I’d dreamt: It was worth the wait.

The deceptive sun and trees glistening with icy hailstones


The Telegraph put together a great list of London’s top teas, highlighting the best of particular themes. On this list for best “London-themed teas” was the Oscar Wilde Bar at Hotel Cafe Royal. Scoring a reservation for one with short notice while on a business trip, I walked about five kilometers from my hotel through rain , sun and hailstorms – no, I’m not making that up – to earn that tea and soak up my very short time in the city.
I have to say, I hadn’t really done my research about Hotel Café Royal, located near Picadilly Circus. I went in blind, other than the research as to the high tea itself. The venue’s history is rich with celebrated figures and intrigue. Founded by fugitive French tax evaders in the mid 19th century – oh, those French! – the café was a new stop and architectural novelty on the developing Regent Street. Over the years, it found itself playing frequent host to elite patrons from literature, celebrity, royalty, and even boxing legends. Celebrated authors such as Oscar Wilde (for whom the tea room was recently renamed) and Virginia Woolf, royalty including George V and his disgraced older brother, Edward VII and later, Princess Diana, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali have numbered among its patrons.


Approaching the hotel from the tourist laden Picadilly Circus, I wasn’t sure what to expect in such proximity to all these tourists. Once I walked inside, my opinion changed dramatically. The hotel’s mix of modern decor among its elegant 19th century architecture creates an exclusive feel. As I stepped into the restored Oscar Wilde Bar, the decor stepped back a century. Rose-colored walls are covered with gilded, ornate wood; its ceilings equally busy but stunning with painted floral scenes. It is exactly as one might expect a Victorian high tea for the wealthy of that era.

While the dining experience centers around tea, Laurent-Perrier champagne is just as much an ubiquitous beverage, as most patrons choose the option of adding a glass of the brut. And why not? There’s always an occasion to celebrate – and on the day of my visit, at least two birthdays were celebrated by the mix of English and foreign clientele. So of course I, too, imbibed.
For my tea, I chose a caffeine-free hibiscus and berry herbal tea. It was my sidekick throughout the experience, along with my own glass of champagne. The attentive staff were kind to offer me newspapers and magazines to read during my solo tea, as I observed they did with another patron dining solo. It was a lovely touch that enhanced my tea (and kept me off of my mobile phone).


Next came the savories, presented elegantly on a tiered silver tray. The amuse bouche was a goat’s cheese and “pickled apple” muffin topped with a rosette of goat cheese and an odd syringe-like dropper full of cucumber juice. It sounds (and looks – as you can see in the photo) odd, but it was perhaps the second best item I ate during the meal.

Crustless tea sandwiches included the traditional (for a reason – simple and delicious!) English cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, smoked salmon, chicken, ham, and prawn. Attentive to allergies, the staff substituted my choice of vegetarian option for the prawn. I opted to try a cheese and chutney combination – a whimsical and indeed, British sweet and savory duo. Should you care for more of a particular variety, they will bring you more. Dangerous!

For the win, sweet tooth! Clotted cream, jam, the hibiscus palate cleanser, and Champagne grace the foreground. In the rear, the four artisanal desserts


I moved on to the sweets. First came a palate cleanser, a subtly sweet, chilled beverage made from the same hibiscus and berry tea that accompanied my food.

It’s not butter! Clotted cream and jam slathered generously atop a plain scone, as the English do it. Amazing.


Scones and tea are inseparable in England. One cannot have a proper tea without scones, though the requisite toppings are a matter of regional taste and tradition. Clotted cream (no, it’s not butter; it’s better!) and strawberry jam are most popular, as I learned when taking a decidedly more humble high tea at a brasserie in the town of Windsor on the previous day with a local friend.

Personally, I’ve never cared much for scones. Now, however, I am a convert. The memory of the scones I had at Hotel Cafe Royal will stay imprinted on me for a long time – the dainty, airy scones serving as a vehicle for a thick smear of clotted cream and a slathering of oozy, sweet jam as my friend had taught me. I was too full to eat 10 of them, but really, I would have liked to eat 10 of them.
In fact, they were so good that me, the dessert-aholic, found the scones more memorable than the delicious and beautifully presented sweets also on the tray. A large Cherry and vanilla macaron was adorned with a cute chocolate top hat that makes Paris’ Ladurée look like amateurs. A buttery, mandarine almondine cake (like a financiér) was another memorable delicacy. The yuzu and blueberry filled choux was a little earthy for my tastes and the outside texture a bit crunchy, but the a pear and goat cheese tart could put any New York cheesecake to shame.

A wonderful feature is the generous ability to box up and take away any uneaten delicacies. I resisted to ask for more for my box, but happily took them back to my hotel with me for delayed gratification.

Though it was a bit of a splurge, the ambience, the service, the tea, and best of all, the food are every bit worth it. My high tea wishes fulfilled, I could happily move on from London to other exploits.

Restaurant de La Tour: The perfect Parisian meal at the perfect moment

Today, the CD takes a much-needed reset at a small neighborhood restaurant in the City of Light (and City of Culinary Treasures).

If you have visited Paris, you likely walked around the infamous Tour Eiffel in the city’s Left Bank and 15th Arrondissement. If you did so, you likely noticed quite the assortment of tourist-oriented cafes and street vendors. Yet it’s easy to forget that people actually live and work near this iconic landmark. So if those denizens dine out, where do they go?


One such location is Bistrot (also Restaurant) de La Tour, an unassuming restaurant that lacks the coveted corner location of larger establishments but has the good fortune of being located adjacent to a butcher shop. And it’s only a block from unobstructed views of the Eiffel Tower.

Inside, the small restaurant is cozy, yet elegantly decorated with modern minimalism. What it lacks in scale it more than overcomes with a delicious and relatively large menu with many options. I had a tough time choosing my selections for a three-course, fixed price menu, though one also can choose two courses, as well as from a separate, daily a la carte menu. Shockingly, the three course menu was only 34 Euros, which is pretty great for the quality and personal service of this establishment.


For appetizers (entrées), I had to select from perhaps eight choices, three of which, happily I found, contained pâté de foie gras. Others included soups, a terrine of eggplant (aubergine), sautéed mushrooms, and more. I opted for a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. Duck overkill, perhaps, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different preparations of duck. The smoked duck burst with meaty flavor and the saltiness of cured meat. Regrettably for duck welfare, I love foie gras. Which also means I’m particular about its quality. Bad foie gras can remind you from what duck parts exactly it’s made, while good foie gras can deceive you into thinking it defies labels and was just born of itself. The foie gras in this particular salad, however, lacked the saltiness of most pates and instead of calling attention to the flavor of the pâté, it worked against it, making it seem a bit bland. It also had some recognizable bits in it, which I carefully excised from the rest and discarded. If this sounds disgusting, please know that this was the one and only disappointment of the meal. Every other aspect exceeded my expectations – which is, to say, that in Paris, one cannot have a bad meal at a local restaurant.


Course two was the embodiment of the richness of good French cuisine. Chicken breast with a powerful but lean Gorgonzola sauce was accompanied by snow peas and haricots verts, as well as the most exquisite potatoes Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) I think I have ever eaten. Those potatoes should have their photo included in a Wikipedia entry for potatoes. They were just that perfect. Other menu options included veal risotto, sea bass, lamb chops, and more.


Now, for the pièce de resistance: dessert. Dessert was another difficult choice for me, with options like a molleux de chocolat (usually a warm, molten chocolate cake), orange supremes with Gran Marnier and ice cream, crème brûlée, and more. But I was intrigued to see a Brioche pain perdû (French toast), which I had never eaten outside of breakfast or brunch, listed. So I picked that.

Let the record speak: This French toast could not have been any better. It deserves a perfect “10” score. Thick, buttery Brioche without the metallic taste of too much egg wash (as French toast is prone to take on) but instead accentuated and moistened only slightly by egg. The toast plateau perched atop a moat of caramel – not the thick, additive laden caramel made from condensed milk, but the sexy, burnt sugar sweetness of of pure, caramelized sugar and melted butter. A petite scoop of vanilla glacé (ice cream) topped the toast. It was the simplest of desserts but so perfectly executed I am inspired to recreate it.

Dining is an experience. Part of a great dining experience is usually one’s company. In this case, I dined alone, which is the antithesis of our international archetype of Paris – OK, sorry for the really elitist use of Big Girl words, but sometimes the English language offers precise words that convey a meaning and a tone with some nice alliteration that I just couldn’t bear to simplify for our Twitt-ified, 140 character-happy world). Yet by dining alone, my focus was the food and wine itself, the restaurant’s atmosphere of dignity yet lack of self-importance, the relaxed cameraderie of two sixtysomething men and a woman catching lingering over dessert, the way the lone waitress and chef greeted chatted up a regular customer through his meal.


I had the sense that I wasn’t a tourist marveling at the City of Light(s) as the world appreciates it, but instead that I was witness to the way the Parisians themselves appreciate it. It was my window into Parisian life in that moment. Without fanfare or movie-style romance.

As I walked through the streets of Paris in the rain (to walk off my dinner and a very long week of work), I experienced Paris as I hadn’t before – alone and more attuned to the city itself and not the aura we have from movies, literature, and our own experiences. Paris is in many ways one of many similar, “international” cities that belong more to the world than they embody their national spirit. But for those of us lucky enough to visit as outsiders, it is different. It is Paris, where everything is somehow more elegant, where street graffiti is more refined – and where the food is on point.

I reflected on that meal – and on this moment in my life, where exhausted – truthfully, burned out, I found myself thinking about my past, present, and future. How my life is, in many ways, so far from that little girl’s hopes dreams, somehow a cosmic joke, cautionary tale, and adventurous triumph of womanhood all at once. This meal in Paris embodied all of that wistfulness, but most of all, it gave me hope and inspiration.

Quite honestly, I’d lost the drive and inspiration that spurred this blog in the first place. Yet this little meal reminded me why I started this blog: For these moments in time that offer an experience with food, with wine, and with culture that allow us to transcend ourselves. That allow us to see there is an entire world beyond ourselves and our experiences waiting to be discovered, shared, and discovered again.

I hope you’ll join me for further adventures of The Culinary Diplomat. In a world that seems to be in the midst of a rebellion against inclusion, against sharing and celebration of our different cultures and traditions, I think the world needs more global communities, not less. But that’s just my perspective…

Maui Wine: Not a complete oxymoron – a novel tasting experience

The idea of Hawaii as a wine producer may seem far-fetched. But Hawaii’s wealth of climatic zones means this tropical paradise has opportunities to create decent, even good wine. Maui Wine offers delicious wines made from Pineapple, as well as up and coming estate grape wines.

Faithful readers, please forgive me for my lack of posts of late. My job has offered great opportunities to travel and collect some very blog worthy food and wine adventures, but it leaves me virtually no time to write them. So here I am writing this post on a rare flight with no WiFi to distract workaholic me!

The drive along the lower slopes of Haleakala


On my recent (ok not so recent as I get around to posting this, and the trip itself was sadly quick!) trip to Hawaii, I needed to quickly learn the island of Maui to prepare for an upcoming event. Having found myself driving around the scenic island in a bright red Ford Mustang, I made a slight detour to the slopes of Haleakala, a cratered volcano, and on it, to Maui Wine’s winery and tasting room. The drive was absolutely stunning, offering views of nearly 2/3 of the island. After a flight from O’ahu and this drive, it also was time to stretch my legs and try some wine.


The tasting room is in a converted, whitewashed cottage surrounded by large deciduous and palm trees. The manicured grounds and picket fences of surrounding Rose Ranch are a reminder of Hawai’i’s colonial, sugar plantation-filled past. The tasting room itself offers a glimpse into the ranch’s past, as well as the lengthy history of winemaking in Maui. The ancestor of Maui Wines, which has changed ownership and branding several times, began winemaking in the late 19th century.


The wines: Pineapple


Pineapple wines are the winery’s most produced and most popular. It’s easy to understand why. Its dry, sparkling Hula O Hawai’i pineapple wine is made in the traditional (champenoise) method. It is a perfect aperitif for a home gathering. The semi-dry Maui Blanc still wine was my favorite. It was full of complex aromas and an almost floral fruitiness. The sweet pineapple Maui Splash wine was smooth and drinkable, not as heavy or sticky sweet as dessert wines.

The wines:  Grape

I tried the Lokelani sparkling rosé, which is part of its deceptively named Rose Ranch line – not made from estate-grown grapes but instead sourced from “all over”, primarily from California. The wine was crisp and tasty, but the disappointment in drinking a California wine that just happened to have been blended in Hawai’i, knocked it down a bit in my esteem.

I had to try one wine made from estate grown grapes, and with Maui’s restrictive liquor laws, I had only one more to sample (note: go with a group so you can try one another’s three samples!). So I chose the Chenin blanc, which is among their most popular (but low production) wines. I’ll just say that it was a good start; it was a crisp, drinkable wine. It lacked the complexity of a Vouvray, a South African chenin, or even my favorite Chenin Blanc blend from California (Pine Ridge).


I would have loved to try all of Maui Wines’ selections. Perhaps next time! While it is off the beaten path (road), make it a stop on the Road To Hana. It’s not every day one can see amazing tropical scenery and taste delicious pineapple wines.

Explore Hawai’i and its Cuisine!

Pineapples, pork, Poké, and Passionfruit – oh my! But there’s so much more to explore in Hawaiian cuisine. From Japanese fusion of Musubi and Poké, Kalua pork, the buttery macadamia nut, the mai tai, a unique form of shaved (“shave”) ice, to its seeming obsession with Spam, cookies and potato chips – at least to pawn off on tourists, we’ll examine some of the Hawaiian islands’ culinary traditions.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally made it to the state of Hawai’i. Was it worth the hype? It depends what you’re looking for.

View of O’ahu from the air

View of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head


While the islands share many cultural similarities, not least of which involve their cuisine and the tough-to-pronounce 12-letter language (how are 12 letters so difficult?), each island has its own character. O’ahu is usually everyone’s first stop. Its southern shore features bustling harbors and the prominent joint US base, and Waikiki just east of downtown capital Honolulu. Waikiki is more urban beach town than resort area, with high rise hotels, endless shops, restaurants, and the islands’ only real nightlife. But amazingly enough, for a city, it has a stunning beach with a wide swath of sand and calm, shallow teal waters.

The “Big Island”, AKA Hawaii, lives up to its name in size and geography. It is the youngest island geologically and boasts 13 different microclimates – including the sole chance for snow activities near the peaks of volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The cities of Hilo and Kona bookend opposite sides of the island. The latter gives us the namesake for delicious, nutty Kona coffee.

View from Wailea

View of Maui’s north shore from Haleakala

Heading just west is Maui. Maui is ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean paradise. It is much bigger than it appears on a map and is roughly barbell-shaped (ok, a barbell that maybe got melted with liquid magma and squished a bit). The volcanic Haleakala lost its peak long ago, and its crater beckons visitors.

Nearby Maui are lesser islands Lana’i and Moloka’i (In case you’re wondering, all these apostrophes are there to guide your pronunciation. Each vowel gets its own syllable, so the “ai”, “ii” and so forth are not single-sound diphthongs.) These islands are barely habited, but Lana’i has a few resorts.

Hop over O’ahu to the west and you hit adventurer’s paradise, Kaua’i. You will hit the most chickens and roosters per capita, thanks to an unfortunate typhoon that allegedly freed chickens used for cockfighting, and so they procreated like…bunnies? Good thing it’s now the Year of the Rooster!

Ok, island intro over. On to the food!

Fresh fish displayed at Maui’s Morimoto isn’t just a staple at sushi restaurants

Fish, fish, and more:
Ok, so when you are a chain of volcanic islands rising tens of thousands of feet from the sea floor and nearby deep blue waters hosting some of the biggest and best deep sea fish, you know you’re going to have an abundance of the good stuff. Tuna, tuna, tuna. White fish, like mahi mahi. Shrimp. Simply grilled is more than enough, but the shrimp trucks that dot O’ahu’s north shore showcase many styles of preparation. Skewers with garlic butter or soy and pineapple served over a bed of rice is a cheap and delicious meal.

Pineapple heaven:
A Western cultural symbol of hospitality, pineapples and Hawaii are as synonymous as Germany and bratwurst, or Japan and Cherry blossoms. Pineapple plantations aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were, but they still are a huge export and source of Hawaiian pride. You can even find wine made from pineapples – and it’s pretty tasty.

Macadamia:
This buttery, decadent nut finds its way into every tourist market, grocery store, gas station prebaked cookie, and almost every restaurant in Hawaii. Whether eaten alone as a snack, baked into Honolulu Cookie Company’s unexpectedly addictive shortbread cookies, worked into the crust on a pan-seated fish fillet, or the secret ingredient in a savory
dish, there’s just something about the macadamia nut that is always a treat.

Poké:
Perhaps Hawaii’s signature dish, poké is Hawaii’s answer to ceviche. With a soy-laden, teriyaki-like marinade, fresh cubes of raw Ahi tuna and onions, along with optional specialty ingredients are coated with so much flavor. I could eat good Poké every day myself.
Musubi:
These nifty little sushi-like rolls filled with an array of flavors, most often as Spam, fried Spam, or edamame for you vegetarians, are sold at hole-in-the wall Japanese shops throughout O’ahu, particularly in the cities of Honolulu and Waikiki. Unrefrigerated, you’ll want to buy them in the morning to enjoy for an early lunch or mid-morning snack.


Sushi and Ramen:
Of course, if you’re looking for more pure Japanese cuisine, sushi spots and ramen bars abound. My friends raved about hotspot Marukame Udon in Waikiki that is never without a line snaking outdoors – even in a downpour, which was the case when we visited.

The menu at Matsumotos Shave Ice

Ichiban with guava


Shave ice:
Nope, it’s not a typo, in Hawaii, it’s always “shave ice” and not “shaved ice.” That bugs the grammar nut in me, but decorum flies out the window once I’ve had a few bites of the good stuff. Combining traditions from various Asian nations, this shaved ice is nothing like the sno cones or Italian ices that come to mind. The ice is so finely shaved it more resembles fluffy snow at low temperatures and has an oddly creamy texture. Add to it any one of a variety of fruit or even edamame purées, and it would be refreshing and delicious in its own right.

But in Hawaii, one shouldn’t try it without going all out. Sweetened condensed milk is a revelation. Adzuki (red bean) seems another odd topping for the Hawaiian shave ice sundae, but its subtle earthy flavor is a nice balance for the sweet ice. Many other versions bury delicious vanilla ice cream in the volcano-like summit of shaved ice. Overkill? No way! The ice and ice cream are like my sister and me – same components, different flavors. But we work well together (most of the time). For an over the top delicious Hawaiian treat, that, much like a banana split, should be shared among friends, try the Ichiban at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice along O’ahu’s charming north shore town of Haleiwa. It features everything I’ve mentioned, plus a few chewy, tapioca-like Mochi to dip in the toppings, whipped cream, and it is served in an edible tray (it tastes like a cake cone/wafer cone).


Mai tai:
If you’ve ever been to a tiki bar , a Trader Vic’s or other Hawaiian-themed restaurant, you’ve likely been assaulted with a server upselling a premium mai tai. The bad ones are sickly sweet and cheap; the good ones are strong and yet somehow delicate. The best I tried was at Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea on Maui. It was a perfect balance of dark rum and fruit, and its foamy passion fruit merengue topper was an outstanding addition.

All this talk of Hawai’i is making me crave a mai tai and Poké and an ocean-front beach chair in Maui. The lady can dream…and you can plan your next vacation, even if it’s just a trip to your nearest Hawaiian restaurant.

An introduction to the cuisine of the. Greek Cyclades, Part 2: The dishes

The second in a series featuring Greek cuisine and the restaurants of Mykonos.

Two posts ago, we set the stage for a Greek drama: The wonderful cuisine of Greece. We discovered the raw ingredients that comprise some of Greece’s beloved dishes; today, we will explore the dishes themselves. Some are so beloved they have been adopted the world over, while others may be an undiscovered culinary frontier.

The meats:

Souvlaki/Souvlakia

Skewers of marinated, grilled meat, or what most know as kebobs (kebabs) are a staple of many culinary traditions. In Greece, they come from a range of meats – pork, chicken, lamb, and sometimes, beef.

Kefta

These skewers of mixed, seasoned ground meats are ubiquitous in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. In Greece, they’re typically a blend of lamb and beef.

Grilled octopus

The simplest is best. Succulent octopus is at its best when grilled fresh. And Greeks are picky about their octopi, so you’d be challenged to find a poor version of it in the isles.

 

Langoustine pasta, a common site at restaurants in the Greek Ies

 

Langoustines 

Europeans and South Americans are well aware of the difference between what North Americans know as shrimp and these massive prawns. Here, they often top a steaming bowl of pasta, sometimes in concert with other forms of seafood.

Mezes

Tiramousalata
Spreadable herring or cod sounds unappetizing, but it’s fluffy, masculine whipped that puts tuna salad to shame. The secret ingredient is soaked bread (or sometimes another starch, such as potatoes), which gives this meze its thick, creamy consistency.

  

Pitta bread
The pita pocket bread many of us grew up with is a poor representation of Greece. True Greek pita bread is slightly puffy and chewy – not quite as thick as its Turkish cousin. As an appetizer or compliment to Tzatziki or meat, topped with herbs, it’s all good!

 

Delicious spanakopita

 

Spanakopita and Tiropita

No, they’re not stuffed pita breads! These delightful pastries, typically made of flaky phyllo dough, are definitely not a weight loss staple. Spanakopita, at least, incorporates a vegetable: its spinach, herb, and cheese filling with hints of lemon is deliciously complex and not so much as guilt-inducing as tiropita. Tiropita consists of flaky pastry stuffed with a savory soft cheese. It’s up there as one of the most unhealthy things one could eat in Greek cuisine. It is rich, yet addictive. Buttery, tart, salty, tangy with a feta alternative, it surely is a crowd pleaser. And waistline expander.

  
Kolokithokefthedes, or Zucchini fritters
The Greeks know how to make vegetables fun. If I had tried these as a picky child, even I would have enjoyed them. Like crab cakes, wide variation exists – some by adding more breading, some egg, some garlic. In general, the best are fluffy, almost weightless, and are easy to overdo. Others are quite heavier

  

Domatokefthedes
I laughed when I first saw “tomato balls” on an English-language menu. Really? I couldn’t picture anything other than fried green tomatoes. Then, I tried them. I would call them an expressionist’s version of tomato. Not unlike the most heavily traded zucchini fritters, most variants were more like heavily breaded fritters or croquettes, where the tomato enhanced the delicious, carbohydrate laden base than the other way around. Still, they were way more delicious than your average tomato!

  
Tzatziki
Calling it a condiment is insulting. The irresistible combination of thick, Greek yogurt, fresh cucumber, garlic, and dill is on every Greek menu, yet every chef or cook seems to put his or her own spin on it – perhaps a bit of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, or a heavier dose of garlic. Good enough to eat on its own, Greeks love to slather French fries in it, and I love scooping it up with Greek pitta or topping burgers with it.

 

Greek salad

 

Greek salad…
…is another item poorly misinterpreted by the Western Hemisphere. We overdo it out west, with our romaine, black olives, and heavy dressing laden with fillers. 

 

Another variant of Greek salad

 
The Greeks go simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta with herbs, thick croutons, olive oil, and perhaps a touch of vinegar. But with that simplicity comes a staggering range of variations. Substitute torn, chewy pitta for baked bread, and the result is more like an Italian panzanella.

Sweets

  

Baklava
Oh, baklava! Your comforting honey and cinnamon-drenched pine nut or walnut filling and flaky phyllo layers are one of my favorite desserts that do not involve chocolate. What separates it from other Mediterranean, Turkish, or Arab versions? Pistachios are far more common in the Levant than in Greece.

  

Loukoumades
Doughnut holes on steroids are a good way to describe these airy clouds of fried dough, drenched with – you guessed it – honey. They may be a bit messy, but they are a delicious mess!

If these Greek specialties don’t make you want to run out and Yelp the best Greek restaurant in town – or travel to Greece, I don’t know what will do so!

The Christmas Markets of Europe: Munich and Madrid

Peruse the sights, sounds, and flavors of one of Europe’s great societal treasures – the Christmas markets.

Many of you may have grieved along with Berliners as they mourned the tragic vehicle attack on one of Berlin’s Christmas market on 19 December 2016. I grieve with Berlin, Aleppo, Zurich, Yemen, and countless other cities across the globe afflicted by violent acts of cowardice and terrorism.

I actually began conceiving of this post before this week’s attack, as, ironically, I had just visited Christmas markets in Munich and Madrid the week before. I seem to have a knack for unintentional timeliness. Or good fortune to have not been in the wrong place at the wrong time. At any rate, this blog post wasn’t meant to capitalize on the recent attack. Call it bizarre coincidence I was writing about it.


Another side note: If you follow this blog, you may have wondered why your email inbox had less spam over the last few months. I did not drop off of the face of the planet. I just made a bit of a career change, and my new job has been sapping my time and creative drive. The sad fact is I actually have tons of great blog material but lack the energy to write. Someone needs to rediscover work-life balance. But I couldn’t allow the holidays go by without addressing one of the most fun culinary times of the year! So here you go.

For years, I’ve wanted to experience Germany at the holidays. I remember reading about the famous Christmas markets in Nuremberg as a young child, my imagination filled with wonder for all the toys, sweets, and decorations kinder could handle.

When a last minute business trip came up to Europe, I was so busy I forgot about the Christmas markets until the night I left for Munich. A quick Google search later, I had a game plan for my arrival. I had just one problem: Very little time and sleep deprivation. I almost skipped out on venturing to the Christkindlmarkt in favor of sleep and warmth. (Have I ever said how much I hate cold weather?).
  
I dragged myself out into the bitter cold, the remnants of an earlier “ice frost” still glittering in the trees. In the heart of Munich, approaching Marienplatz, pedestrian streets are festooned with light displays and overhead signage. When I saw the “Münchner Christkindlmarkt” sign overhead, I couldn’t help but grin like a small child.


And when I spotted my first Glühwein stands, my giddiness grew. I grabbed my €4 ceramic mug full of Blueberry glühwein and kept walking. Most people stop to enjoy their beverage and then return the mug, but I’m a pragmatic person. The hot mug was exactly what I needed to stroll and keep my (gloved) hands from going numb, because, I repeat, I am a wuss when it comes to being cold. So I enjoyed my wine while browsing the charming wooden stands packed full of Christmas wares.

Ok, you really want to ask me, um, so am I supposed to know what Glühwein is? Is it a thing?

Um, yes, it most certainly is a thing. Glühwein is a deliciously hot, sweet mulled wine. It is made with a variety of flavors. And some stands even sell a form of hot spiced beer. While intrigued, the idea was not appealing enough to try it. Quite frankly, it sounds disgusting. I’m hoping it’s more like cider. Maybe one day.

Borrowed mug and phone camera in hand, I crossed off some items on my Christmas shopping list. It’s important to note that the Christmas markets are less market and more festival. They are gathering spots for locals and tourists alike, offering perhaps more cooked food and Glühwein stands than all crafts and wares combined.

  
Food stalls specialize in a range of specialties from all over Germany, not just the home state of Bavaria. Everything from savory currywürst (bratwurst smothered in curried ketchup) to flammkuchen (Alsatian pastry/flatbread topped with creme frâiche, bacon, and onions), to latkes, French fries, to crêpes (savory and sweet), sweet waffles, fritters and strudels, elegant pastries, hot chocolate, and candies. And, of course, beautifully decorated gingerbread that is a staple at German festivals.

  
I walked past a stand of pastries, upon which row after row of perfectly round domes covered in chocolate or confectioners’ glaze with any flavor one might conceive of – think of every variation of chocolate truffle flavor and that comes close. I had no idea what the hell they were, but I was intrigued. So I bought one and stashed it away.

Slightly buzzed from my Glühwein – still shivering – and lack of sleep, I efficiently hit the craft and toy stands. If you want to stock up on beautiful Christmas ornaments and decorations, no better opportunity exists.

I was overwhelmed by the endless variations of wooden Nutcracker men, but I finally chose one to take home to my family. Beautifully carved wooden crèches (nativities) filled stall after stall. I would have loved to bring one home, but regretfully, I considered them too large to haul back.

It was amazing to see several stalls devoted entirely to selling glass ball Christmas tree ornaments. I had to skip those – no way am I capable of hauling them over 7000 miles and five airports, but I focused on -unbreakable! – straw, wood, and fabric ornaments. I had no shortage of choices: a multitude of straw designs, adorned with brightly colored thread or shiny beads; wooden figurines and 2D nativity scenes; plush, embroidered mice and angels. The ornaments are the epitome of Old World Christmas tradition and handicrafts (recognizing that for all I know, they could have been machine-made in China).

  
Other stands purveyed more mainstream children’s toys and books. I was delighted to see a wide selection of Ravensburger games and puzzles – staples of my own childhood. I may have purchased a little something to pass on that tradition to my niece!

Later that evening, I curiously opened my chocolate covered, marzipan Dome of Diabetes. It was NOT at all what I expected. I had assumed it was some sort of cake, perhaps with a layer of marzipan. Nope. Americans, it was kind of like a giant Mallowmar or marshmallow pinwheel. A thin, unsweetened wafer with the flavor and texture of a “cake” ice cream cone (why they are called cake cones still baffles me. Why aren’t they wafer cones?) formed the base. It was topped with a massive marshmallow with an intense amaretto flavor (not marzipan. NOT the same! Fun fact: Did you know amaretto is flavored with apricot pits, not almonds?). It was a bit too sweet for my tastes, but probably not quite the decadent calorie bomb I’d anticipated. And only later did I investigate and learn that it was a Shokokuss – but large enough to be called Jumbokuss.

  
With the buzz of happy, slightly buzzed crowds, the majesty of Munich’s Bavarian architecture, and the cold pre-winter air, I definitely found myself enjoying the Christmas spirit, if only for a brief moment before business engulfed me.

Germany really gets into sharing its Christmas spirit with the world. Even Munich’s airport has a not insignificant, charming open-air Christmas market outside Terminal 2. It’s a bit funny to see the rustic wooden stalls juxtaposed against the sleek, modern glass walls of the terminal, but if you have only an airport layover in Munich, I highly recommend you detour past security and visit the market for a taste of the Münchner Christkindlmarkt.

  
Several days later, I had the good fortune to make a stopover and visit one of my old university friends in Madrid. During that stop, I had the opportunity, however brief, to see Madrid’s version of the Christmas market. Many of its plazas have at least small markets that sell Christmas themed wares, including fresh greenery. You can actually deck your halls with fresh boughs of holly.

Fa la la la la la la la la!

Comparing the Madrid stalls with Munich’s, I noticed many similarities. The foods offered are slightly different – most popular are (overpriced) churros and hot chocolate. Ornaments are a bit more commercial – glass and plastic; crèches are ubiquitous but more often the figurines are ceramic instead of wood, and their elaborate mangers and inns are often made with mixed media – wood, ceramic, individually thatched roofs, and even blanketed with actual moss.

Though i didn’t have the opportunity to do much shopping, I was grateful for another festive experience this busy holiday season.

Returning to the USA, I’m reminded how Europe helps us all get into the holiday spirit. I am so thankful for my (safe) adventures in Europe this holiday season. My prayers go out to those families who were not so fortunate in Berlin this week. May the Christmas markets continue to shower their lucky visitors with holiday warmth and spirit, undeterred, for centuries to come.

An introduction to the cuisine of the Greek Cyclades, Part 1

Sure, you’ve tried a few specialties at your local Greek restaurant and watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding (both of them!). But what is Greek cuisine? Join me on a the first in a series marking a culinary tour of Mykonos (Mikonos), one of the Cycladic Islands. 

In the next few weeks, I’ll profile some of the great dining experiences in Mykonos – some suitable for most travelers, and a few for those foodies willing to splurge for a good meal.

  
Mykonos occupies an arid and rocky 26 square mile swath of crystal turquoise Aegean Sea and is one of the Cyclades, a “circle” of Islands south of Athens and mainland Greece. 

  
If it weren’t for its beaches and scenic mountainside views, tourism may have never elevated the historically impoverished island to the posh, party destination it is today. 

  
Upon arrival, my first observations were the remarkably dry and rocky terrain, the humble whitewashed stucco houses with minimal attempt at landscaping or gardening. I compare that to Lima, Peru, which is essentially a coastal desert but has been tamed through irrigation with an almost lush covering of tropical plants and Palm trees. Most of Mykonos, in contrast, is scrub grass or just Martian looking orange rock, swept by millions of years of brutal north winds. Mykonos has long, dry and windy summers and winters with occasional periods of range. If you visit around Easter, I’m told, you will see flowers and greenery. That’s not the case in September. Natives of Mykonos say that the island has seen greener days, and archaeological evidence shows farming was somewhat easier two thousand years ago. 

  
But once you see Mykonos town or drive to several points on the coast, the striking, otherworldly landscape becomes a thing of beauty. Building code in Mykonos is quite strict. All buildings’ exteriors must either be painted white (and repainted yearly) or be made of natural stone. Window shutters and doors may be customized, but the buildings must be interconnected cubes or rectangles. Call it the ancient Stepford Wives’ precursor to suburban homeowners’ associations if you will, but the result is a traditional look that makes Mykonos feel unspoiled and unique.

  
So what does all this mean for food and wine on the island? Agriculture has a historical precedence, but it’s not exactly a breadbasket. Grains and produce largely are imported from other islands or from the mainland in northern states like Peloponnesus. With such high winds, anything that grows can only do so low to the ground or root vegetables. Which makes its fauna better for grazing animals, and thus dairy is prevalent. 

 

A selection of Greek cheeses

 
Mykonos is proud of its cow, goat, and sheep cheeses, which range from the fresh, soft Katiki which tastes like a sharper ricotta, or the very pungent, fungal Kopanisti Mykonou cheese, the latter of which even a stinky cheese lover like me could barely do more than two bites. And don’t forget Greece’s most internationally known staple: yogurt. Full-fat yogurt, thick like whipped cream, topped with Greek honey or unique marmalades (even a strangely caramel grape), is unparalleled.

 

Langoustine pasta

 
As one might imagine for an island, seafood is a staple: fish, octopus, and large prawns (langoustines) are everywhere. Grilled octopus, especially, can be found on almost any restaurant or taverna menu, and it is pretty fantastic! (This coming from someone who isn’t a huge fan of seafood).

 

ruins on the island of Delos

 
But what Mykonos lacks in internal agriculture, it more than makes up for by importing and using the best of its neighbors’ harvests. Mykonos proudly crafts dishes from all over Greece. While the ancient Greeks pioneered international trade (Delos, a small island just west of Mykonos, was the first known duty free port, the Greeks claim), today’s Mykonos imports workers and tourists. Its roughly 200 day tourist season bolsters its year-round population of 5,000-10,000 to nearly 200,000 during peak season (July and August). Most seasonal workers live in Athens or other areas of the mainland during the winter, but others come from outside Greece. 

 

Risotto finds its way from Italy onto many Greek restaurants’ menus

 
Despite the barrage of international imports, the majority of Myconian restaurants serve Greek cuisine with international fusion, rather than uniquely “ethnic” restaurants. So you’ll find sushi and risotto on many menus, but Japanese, Thai, Mexican, and Irish restaurants and bars are fewer than one might expect.

  
Greek wine, also takes menu precedence over its more celebrated French, Italian, Spanish, or German neighbors’ exports. I personally worried a bit, having had a few not so great experiences with Greek wine in the past. My fears were mostly unfounded, as Greece now offers some really outstanding white wines and drinkable red ones. Let me explain what I mean by drinkable: demand for Greek wine has increased dramatically in recent years, so Greek producers release their wines fairly young. I was shocked to drink several 2015 red wines – and the harsh, young mouth on them could benefit from a bit more aging. More on this later!
  
In next week’s post, I’ll share a primer on some of Greece’s best known – or uniquely Greek – dishes. From Greek salad to Tzatziki, Domatokefthedes to loukomades, you won’t want to miss it!

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