Tag Archives: #Tunisia

About that great Indian food experience in Tunis…

My best meal in Tunisia wasn’t regional food, but instead, complex Indian dishes paired with Tunisian wine: a match made in globalization heaven!

I did not expect to write that my best meal in Tunisia was Indian food. Yes, I expected great couscous or perhaps the depth of flavor in Moroccan style tagines, maybe an eastern influence of good Shawarma (Chawarma in Tunis), or French dishes with a nod to Tunisia. While my last post about Moroccan food proves one expectation was met, in general, I found food in Tunisia to be decent, but not amazing. I spent plenty of time searching great dining experiences, but I acknowledge that I didn’t get out and around to the very finest Tunisia has to offer. While I had several good meals, the best were not fully “Tunisian.”

If you read my post about Stockpot in Riga, you saw that my favorite meals in Latvia were not the country’s ‘own’ cuisine. One can argue about the negatives of globalization, but by my observation, globalization allows us to experience another culture without traveling far from home. Or in this case, it allows both locals and travelers alike to savor the exotic together.

The best meal I had in Tunis came at the end of my stay in Tunisia. I’m not sure whether the lack of a meal that wowed me for weeks caused me to lower my standards, or perhaps it really was that good. I would argue that the meal would have been fantastic no matter the setting or meal context. Good food is good food!

This particular experience was made possible by Calcutta, one of the restaurants in the Golden Tulip Hotel – Carthage. Once inside, this restaurant’s traditional atmosphere could be anywhere in the world. Its lengthy menu offers many recognizable specialties, with a few interesting selections. The ‘chicken cooked in pickle spices’ sounded a bit odd, but its rich sauce had a slightly smoky quality to it and so many subtle layers of flavor. I tasted a friend’s but wished I could have returned, because I’d order it myself. My murgh tikka masala, though not a truly ‘Indian’ dish (thank you, British colonists) had depth in its slow-simmered tomato and onion gravy with a slow-burning heat (I requested spicy – their spicy was more of an Indian ‘medium hot’ rather than true hot). I also tried another friend’s chicken makhani (ordered spicy). Again, the makhani curry was outstanding – a complex interplay of sweet, velvety, tangy and meaty at once, with the essence of garlic. On the vegetarian side, yellow dal (lentils) were not quite as good. They tasted as if they came from a mix, I’m sorry to say, but palak paneer was tasty, if not as complex or rich as other versions I’ve had. The garlic naan was nicely charred and full of garlic.

Though I ate wonderful Indian meals throughout the next several weeks, the complexity of Calcutta’s traditional dishes remains a standout among restaurants in several countries.

A verbal Moroccan feast

Enjoy this verbal and visual Moroccan feast brought to you by two of Tunis’s acclaimed restaurants. Shared regional influences and geography unite the culinary traditions of Morocco and Tunisia, yet they are far from redundant. Moroccan cuisine is more familiar to the outside world than Tunisia’s. I have to argue that this phenomenon is for good reason!

El Omnia
El Omnia is a sleek Moroccan restaurant at the Movenpick Hotel in Gammarth, Tunis. Its feel is contemporary. Ruby and pale grey tones pervade. Tea lights, embedded in the floor, twinkle like stars as they illuminate path to the tables. Once seated at banquet style booths, ornate red and gold place settings create a regal feel.
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The wine: My favorite Soltane syrah/merlot blend happily was available. With a touch of oak and dark cherry notes, it is reminiscent of a young French wine and not inappropriate for Moroccan cuisine.
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The food: Slightly dry and spongy rolls, topped with sesame seeds and with scant anise seeds, inside greeted us immediately after ordering. My trio ordered hors d’oeuvres morocain, a platter of several chilled cooked Moroccan salads: carrot, green peppers, eggplant, and octopus. For entrees, we shared a lamb tagine (the meat was slightly tough but flavorful), chicken and olive tagine, and a chicken pastilla.

Sidebar explanation: A tagine is essentially a stew, named for the two-piece ceramic pot used both to cook and serve it. It is recognized by its uniquely shaped lid – like an inverted funnel. It was designed to minimize the amount of water needed to cook it by preventing liquid from evaporating during the low and slow cooking process, which traditionally takes place over charcoal. The pot itself doubles as a serving dish. Usually a combination of sweet and savory – typically meat, vegetables and dried fruit, Moroccan tagines are often seasoned with cinnamon, saffron, ginger, coriander, and cumin, to name a few common spices. Sidebar complete.


I ordered a chicken pastilla (AKA Bastilla or b’stila), a wonderfully and strangely sweet meets savory meat pie. A flaky pastry crust studded with almonds and powdered sugar surrounds a cinnamon spiced poultry filling. That filling is traditionally pigeon, but today, you’re more likely to find it made with chicken instead.

“This tastes like our hotel”
We ordered a plate of Moroccan cookies for dessert (the featured image for this post). We noticed immediately that many of them had a disinctively floral taste – rose water and lavender. It occurred to us that this combination resembled the scented oil that perfumed our entire hotel (not this hotel). Other cookies on this plate included a crisp wreath ringed with sesame seeds, an apricot stuffed with a thick almond cream, and and a crunchy, bite sized shortbread-like almond cookie.

El Dar at The Residence hotel
Several of us seized the opportunity for a “traditional oriental” feast at The Residence Hotel’s El Dar restaurant. El Dar’s style is clearly traditional – special event or otherwise. As such, traditional tones and patterns decorate it: carved, dark wood tables and chairs, tasseled pillows with bright Berber striped patterns. The restaurant typically serves Tunisian and other North African traditional dishes, but on this occasion, it offered a full buffet and entertainment – to include musicians and, of course, a belly dancer. An array of warm and cold salads, tagines (essentially, stews), and desserts more than satisfied us.

 

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The buffet presented a long list of cooked but chilled salads typical of North Africa – carrot, eggplant, green pepper, tuna, green leaf salad with egg and black olive. Thick flatbreads helped mop up the salads. Meats were largely served as tagines. The lamb was tender and fragrant with a hint of cinnamon. It was the best lamb tagine I had since Bolivia (at Rendezvous, a story from another post). A delicious fish appeared to have been baked with a topping of egg and or fresh cheese – whatever odd combination it was, it was quite tasty – the sum was greater than the individual components.

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The dessert buffet sucked me in well past the point of regret. As pictured above, sticky baklava-like small bites, ring-shaped cookies accented with subtle but distinctive rose water, a creamy pudding with lavender, and my favorite – an intense hazelnut pudding packed with ground hazelnuts.

You need not travel to North Africa to experience the joys of a Moroccan feast. I love that so man cities around the world have wonderful, authentic Moroccan restaurants. Whether you are new to Moroccan food or a veteran, I hope you’ll be inspired to experience it again!

Tunisian wine: A surprising discovery

Tunisian wine? Such a thing exists? Across the spectrum of Tunisian food and drink, it was the quality, availability, and affordability of Tunisian wine that surprised most. How does it compare to other wines around the world?

Those of you familiar with the Arab and Muslim worlds may expect alcohol to be difficult, or at least, expensive – though not impossible – to come by.

That is not the case in Tunisia. While many restaurants do not serve alcohol, many do so. Imported wine, beer, and spirits are a bit more difficult and much more expensive (marked up), but Tunisian beer and wine are widely available. The French and Italian influence on Tunisian winemaking is evident, though I’m sure the French and Italian contingent may beg to differ.

I was surprised pleasantly with the drinkability and variety of Tunisian wines. In Tunis, local Carthaginian wine Magon – and its several gradations (Premier, Vieux, etc. – in vin rouge, blanc, and rose blends) is plentiful and cheap, typically costing less than 11 dinar per 750 mL bottle at supermarkets like Carrefour and between 35 and 40 dinar per bottle at restaurants. Magon is a clean and simple wine, and it probably least resembled French wines with perhaps a nod to an Italian Sangiovese. It is smooth, with balanced acidity and low tannins, and nonexistent oak. Other red varieties also seemed low in oak and tannins but with higher acidity. Still, they were smooth and inoffensive – that may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but they were far superior to any similarly priced wines in the US and on par with many European imports.
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I must rave about one wine though. The Soltane de kurubis Mornag red, a Syrah-Merlot blend, was head and shoulders above the average Tunisian wine. Why? Though more subtle than the often heavy oak of some French wines, such as chateauneuf de pape or the robust, “big” red of a right-bank Bordeaux, it had more complexity and richness than other Tunisian reds. It played more like an old world red, but with the dark cherry and currant aromas of a California merlot. Despite the inclusion of the syrah grape, it was not peppery, and its tannins were smooth and subtle. I don’t know if I was starved for that complexity after a few weeks of Magon and others, but I couldn’t get enough of the Soltane, which was unfortunate given that I could only find it at restaurants and not for retail sale. Sigh. The one souvenir besides leather handbags I really wanted, but it was not to be!

For white, the heavy Muscat varietal is readily available, but it most often is not a late harvest (dessert wine), so if you are accustomed to the peachy sweetness of a Muscat or Muscato dessert wine, you will be a bit surprised to find it more like a heavier, buttery Chardonnay.

All in all, if you happen to stumble upon a Tunisian wine, don’t refuse it! You may find yourself enjoying it more than you thought possible.

Having fun with harissa, Part II: Spicy harissa hummus

Give that tired, mass-produced hummus a run for the money with a hearty homemade hummus with the smoky red pepper and chili kick of North African Harissa. Hummus will never be the same!

After a few weeks in Tunisia, I was inspired to find several ways to use harissa. In my last post, I discussed my re-creation of my spicy egg white breakfast omelet for a quick, healthy, anytime entree with an exotic flair. Today, I hope you’ll embrace harissa even more by making fresh, nutritious hummus from scratch. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I stand converted!

My aunt and mother first introduced me to hummus when I was a young child, long before hummus and even salsa became mainstream snacks around the world. Unfortunately for me, I hated it then. A decade or two later, I finally acquired a taste for it, so much so that I never again passed on it at home or at my favorite Lebanese restaurants.

Yet pre-Tunisia, I’d never made hummus from scratch myself. I tried the boxed mixes during college a few times, but out of laziness and a lack of a decent food processor, it took a new Cuisinart processor [I am NOT paid to say that!] and a trip to the Middle East to embolden me. I didn’t want to make just hummus; I had two goals – make it truly from scratch with organic, dried garbanzo beans (chickpeas) instead of canned, and to make it unique and spicy with harissa.

You may substitute canned chickpeas for the dried ones of course, which eliminates the need to plan ahead (soaking takes little effort but a lot of time to let them rest, preferably to sprout and release more nutrients, while also making the tough legume more digestible). Using dried chickpeas also requires the addition of water to the food processor. You still may need to add water if you use canned chickpeas, but that amount will be substantially less.

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Make this recipe your own by tweaking it to suit your tastes. I love garlic, so I used both raw and roasted cloves for depth of flavor. I find that lemon juice can really overpower hummus, so I used it with caution. Others may like to add more tahini for its distinctively nutty flavor. Slowly add flavorings incrementally so that you hit the flavor sweet spot for your tastes.

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Of course, you may substitute cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, or Asian chili paste or omit the harissa entirely, but it adds a smoky and definitely spicy kick – unless you find and use a mild version. In that event, it’s a shortcut to roasted red pepper hummus. The hummus universe is limited by only your own creativity and the ingredients you choose to use!

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Spicy Harissa Hummus

  • 2 cups cooked, dried chickpeas/Garbanzo beans (see below)
  • 2 cloves raw garlic
  • 4 cloves roasted garlic (optional)
  • 1/4 cup Tahini
  • 1/4 c. Lemon juice
  • 1/4 c. Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. Salt
  • 1/4 c. filtered water (or more to thin)
  • 3-4 Tbsp. Harissa

Soak 1 cup of dried chickpeas in 4 cups water for at least 24 hours up to 72 hours (once the chickpeas have germinated and begun to sprout). Drain and rinse. Bring about one quart (4 cups) fresh water to a boil; add chickpeas and cook for about 15 minutes or until tender (or several hours in a slow cooker). Drain. The cooked chickpeas should amount to about 2 1/2 cups.

Alternatively, use canned chickpeas (one full 15/16 oz. can); rinse and drain before proceeding. (Omit the salt or add in to taste if using canned chickpeas with added salt.)

In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients except water and harissa. Pulse to incorporate. Gradually, add water to thin to desired consistency. Add harissa (or substitutes) and additional salt to taste if desired.

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Serve topped with additional harissa, ground sumac, or pistachios as pictured below.

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Hummus without harissa – great either way!

Having fun with harissa, Part I: The harissa omelet

Whether you’re a harissa fan or harissa what?, learn about this spicy North African condiment and try out a few recipes – you’ll be hooked! Today, I’ll share a habit I started while in Tunisia on the #wholelifechallenge – limiting starches, sugars, and dairy – by incorporating harissa into an omelet for a spicy, satisfying, and nutritious breakfast or dinner main course. I’ll share my recipe for spicy harissa hummus as Part II in an upcoming post.

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Harissa is a red pepper and chile relish common in North African cuisine. If you’ve eaten at North African, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern restaurants, you’ve likely tried it but perhaps never realized you’d done so. At first glance, its deep crimson hue and ingredient list look much like siracha or sweet Asian chili sauce. I’m amazed at how quickly siracha has morphed from an Asian specialty item to a mainstream flavoring – so mainstream, in fact, it has found its way into international brands of packaged potato chips/crisps.

All three condiments add fire from red chilies and a touch of garlic to savory dishes, but don’t mistake harissa for siracha. The defining differences between the two are vinegar and sugar in siracha; olive oil and roasted bell peppers (capsicum) are key ingredients in harissa. If siracha and harissa were people, siracha would be the loud, boisterous person at a party, telling raucous jokes with fervent energy; harissa would be the person you might not notice initially, but after you end up in a two-hour conversation, it hits you that this person the reason you had such a great time. Siracha packs a tangy punch and stands out; harissa is more subtle, with a smoky, slow burn and a classy touch of olive oil.

If you’re familiar with siracha, give harissa a try. You can find it at many grocers and supermarkets, grouped with other condiments or ‘international’ foods. A great way to use harissa’s flavor is by incorporating it into an omelet. It’s a great compliment to vegetables and a healthy, low-calorie flavor additive. Especially if you’re vegan or lactose-intolerant (or just watching calories/fat), a small amount of harissa, alone or together with the spice/sesame blend, za’atar, transforms the tired, basic omelet into something new and exciting.

In Tunisia, my breakfast egg/omelet station had a jar of harissa, so one morning, I asked the cook to add harissa to my egg white omelet, and a new favorite was born. Back at home, I began adding in harissa and the spice/sesame blend, za’atar into my omelets for a quick, single serving meal.

This dish is more of a serving suggestion than a step-by-step recipe, so follow your own favorite recipe or personal omelet technique. If flipping omelets is outside of your culinary comfort zone, make it frittata style in a cast-iron skillet by cooking initially on the stove and then transferring to the oven (approximately double the ingredient proportions listed below). Additionally, I’m not a huge fan of eating eggs on their own, so I often use egg whites, which are less sulfuric to my tastebuds, as well as low in fat and high in protein. If you ever choose to make any of my ice cream recipes, omelets are a great way to use leftover egg whites. Waste not, want not!

The Harissa Omelet

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 3-4 egg whites (3-4 tbsp.; or 2-3 whole eggs)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup mixed, raw vegetables, diced finely*
  • 2 tsp. harissa – or to taste
  • 1 tsp. za’atar (optional)

*I use whatever vegetables I have on hand. My favorites are red bell peppers, onion, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and crimini mushrooms. I tend to go heavy on the vegetables, cooking and folding in to the omelet a full cup of raw vegetables (1 1/2 cups raw spinach alone, as it wilts significantly when cooked). For a ‘prettier’, more technically easy omelet, cook the vegetables, then remove and reserve 1/4 to half cup as a side dish before adding egg.

Heat the oil in a nonstick omelet pan (frying pan) over medium to medium-high heat. Add vegetables (excluding any leafy greens) and za’atar. Cook until just tender/al dente – about 5-7 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs or egg whites with a wire whisk or fork until slightly bubbly. Set aside. If using greens, add to the omelet pan. and stir until wilted. Next, pour the egg into the pan and swirl the pan to evenly coat the pan. Drizzle harissa strategically over the egg/vegetable mixture to disperse it.

When the egg begins to bubble, test the underside of the omelet by gently lifting with a spatula. If it peels easily from the edge of the pan, continue to slide the spatula from the outside in to lift. Fold or flip the omelet to cook the top/inside until slightly browned. Remove and serve with reserved vegetables, plain Greek yogurt sprinkled with za’atar, and/or more harissa.

A Roman holiday in Tunisia: Picnic like the Romans did

My most memorable food adventure in Tunisia was self-made: a group picnic that made good use of Tunisian foods, French cheese, Tunisian wine, and Italian cookies, set against the backdrop of an A.D. second century amphitheatre in which thousands of Tunisian citizens of the Roman empire must have done the same while enjoying a comedic or tragic stage production. Was ours a comedy or a tragedy? Read to find out!

From its plains made verdant by winter’s rain and wind to gently sloping mountains with terraced olive groves and vineyards, it’s easy to see why some of the ancient world’s most powerful civilizations made this region its breadbasket and home.

Centuries before the famed Punic wars between Carthage-based Hannibal’s brilliant north African armies (the ones with the elephants, if you have some vague recollection of history classes) were stymied in their attempt to colonize northward into southern Europe, came the Berbers, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians. Trade with the Greeks and, later, Romans ensured an exchange of ideas and their signature architecture and urban planning. I can’t tell you what they ate, but I can tell you what I ate during a visit to the ancient Punic and Roman city of Dougga. Aside from some packaged cookies, European cheeses with more recent origins, and the plastic utensils we used to eat them, I would guess a middle or upper class Punic, Berber, or Roman woman could have eaten a very similar meal at various points throughout Dougga’s history.

If you ever studied the Latin language or enjoyed ancient history in school, you should make Tunisia and Dougga a bucket list item. Unlike ruins in southern Europe, Tunisia’s Carthaginian, Punic, and Roman ruins are better preserved (less wars and intentional mass destruction) and less frequently trafficked than what you’ll see behind glass walls and barricades elsewhere. Dougga, which is the best preserved Roman city, was my favorite. Though local farmers still own most of it (sidebar: seriously, how cool is it to say, “Oh that temple? Yeah, I own it.”), it was designated as a UNESCO heritage site not long ago in 1997. So I feel pretty privileged as a North American tourist to be allowed to wander around the city. My inner nerd definitely came out as I walked in and out of Dougga’s 1900 year old (2nd century AD) amphitheater, Caelestian temple, public baths (complete with a 12-seat latrine that made for a great photo op), a 22-room home (oh no, that’s not an error), less ostentatious homes, and the much older (9th century BC) Punic tower – the only building the Romans felt was interesting enough to not destroy and build atop it. And our picnic inside the amphitheater was definitely the most scenic I’ve had. How often can you say that you have tailgated where thousands of people have been tailgating and sloshing wine around for nearly 2,000 years?

In Berber villages outside of Tunis, you can create an entire meal through the shops that line a single street. One vendor may sell brined olives, chiles, and pickled vegetables; another, fresh meat; a third offers thick, warm rounds of spongy bread; another homemade butter and fresh cheese. The locals compare it to ricotta, but the texture ad flavor is much more similar to Indian paneer. All vendors in one village had an identical, interesting method of cheese making. Milk is cultured in 1.5 Liter water bottles, then placed in an aerated plastic mould, usually infused with a sprig of Rosemary. The use of old water bottles was slightly disturbing for a sterile American, but the cheese was absolutely fantastic, especially on fluffy Berber bread. On a stop in one small down along the drive from Tunis, we added to our Carrefour supermarket (a modern-day French occupation!) purchases with small-town bounty.

 

We stuffed ourselves while defending against blustery winds with our rotisserie chicken; round, spongy Berber bread loaves; local, fresh sheep’s cheese; imported Edam, Swiss, Camembert, and Brie cheeses; stewed apricots, fresh, local dates and oranges; and three kinds of Tunisian wines. I thought of it as our remake of the original, pre-theater meal! Someone asked if ours was a comedy or tragedy. I would say that it was both: We lost some food and overturned plates to wind, and wine was spilled like a blood sacrifice due to a colleague’s inexperience wearing her new (men’s) Berber cloak (which really looks like a Druid or Harry Potter character’s garb), it made for both frustration and a lot of laughs. For the record, I’m pretty sure we weren’t anywhere near the first or last group to spill wine in that amphitheater. And one of the feral dogs that are fixtures in Tunisia showed up as we were cleaning up, waiting for us to depart so that it could become a living garbage disposal for the bits of food that flew off our plates.

It was truly a dining experience for the memory bank and to share with others. If you ever make it to Tunisia, you will be well rewarded by the scenic 2 1/2 hour drive from Tunis.

What is Tunisian cuisine?

This post is the first in a series about Tunisia, a small country on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. To many of you in Europe, it may be familiar as a budget-friendly tourist destination at its beach resorts. To much of the rest of the world, Tunisia took on importance as the birthplace of Arab Spring in January 2011 and one of the ‘success stories’ of democracy. Scarcely two months have passed, however, since the tragic attack at the Bardo Museum in March 2015. My heart goes out to the families of those lost in that attack, as well as to the Tunisian people, who are some of the most friendly and tolerant I’ve ever met. I hope each of you enjoys this introduction!

Tunisia’s importance has historic significance predating today’s turbulent times. Its strategic seaside location and wealth of natural resources inspired colonization by the Phoenicians and ancient Romans – for whose empires it was the ‘breadbasket.’ More recently in the 19th and 20th centuries, France and Italy vied for control before Tunisia finally received independence in the 1950s.


Though small, Tunisia has much variation in terrain and vegetation: windswept Mediterranean cliffs; fertile, rolling hills that remind one of Piedmont or Tuscany (Piemonte o Tuscano) in Italy; and sandy, desert dunes reminiscent of another world. In fact, southern Tunisia has served as the location for the production of numerous films, most famously, Star Wars Episode I, which since has attracted tourists to Tatouine. Its cuisine is equally heterogenous and hard to characterize: A mix of land meats (if this term does not already exist, then I officially claim it) and seafood; an abundance of sweet, tart citrus; and influenced by Mediterranean and Arab flavors and culinary techniques alike.

From the Mediterranean shores come its sea influence. Cold tuna salad, octopus, and calamari (also referred to as cuttlefish or seiche) are as easily found as simply grilled dorade or sea bass. Fish are often served simply with lemon and french fries or rice – or a side of pasta, a common sign of Italian influence.

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Inland, roast lamb and chicken are are most common main dishes. You might be startled to find your future meal – a giant, fresh lamb carcass – literally hanging in front of your eyes as you order, only to find your cut of meat butchered in front of you and promptly grilled. You can’t say it isn’t fresh!

Couscous is a common conduit for this meat, though it tends to be much drier than its more widely known Moroccan brother. An egg dish, brik, is a national dish of Tunisia. I liken it most to a Spanish tortilla, and often it is eaten by hand. Much of Tunisian cuisine is built upon simple flavors; when Tunisians need a little spice, they turn to harissa, North Africa’s best and most versatile condiment. Harissa, a spicy roasted red pepper and chili spread, livens even the most mundane dishes.

Both ashore and inland, Tunisia’s winter citrus crop seems endless. One day, we had the opportunity to pick at least four varieties of oranges, as well as lemons, from a small orchard. Fresh fruit is never hard to come by during Tunisian winters: Fruit carts can be found alongside busy city and village streets or even along some highways. Alongside citrus and seasonal fruits are sweet dates, ubiquitous throughout Tunisia and bought by the sprig (still on the branch) from vendors.

Sweets are serious in Tunisia. Bakeries are plentiful; their goods combine both French/European and Arabic flavors. They can be a bit on the sticky sweet side, but with honey, cardamom, dates, and pistachios on their side, it’s hard to resist a small pastry.

Tasty Italian tagliatelle Bolognese  with Tunisian wine

Tasty Italian tagliatelle Bolognese with Tunisian wine

With such a wealth of food resources, one might expect dining in Tunisia to be an amazing experience. My experience of several weeks led me to conclude that Tunisian food is best experienced cooked in the home. I did have inspiring experiences with Tunisian and Moroccan ingredients and style, as well as Italian and even Indian. I’ll share a few of them with you in posts to come, including my own incorporation of these ingredients, such as harissa. Cooking your own meals with Tunisia’s bounty – or Tunisian inspiration – will give you a sense of this lovely country.