Friday, 29 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) IV

Part 4 of K's Series

Before I go to SoIL and stay at a place that doesn’t have internet and barely a cell phone signal, I thought I’d finish this four part series. I may not take on four part stuff again because I never got around to finishing them. It isn’t like my job got in the way...since I don’t do that anymore :P

Well, on with the show! I’m sure the 12 of you just have to know why Brits are better drunk. :)

Our “light” lunch was at the beautiful farm of Corte d’Aibo. It is located about 13 miles (20 km) outside of Bologna, Italy. The views were simply breathtaking. We were on the top of a hill with vineyards as far as the eye could see. You just knew you were in Italian wine country. Corte d’Aibo was not only a restaurant, but a winery, and guesthouse. They even had an old farm dog named Mortadella. She did share the color with the baloney-like meat...and was very round.

View from Corte d'Aibo

There was bread waiting for us on the table with some wonderful EVOO and balsamic condiment. Then the all-organic wine began to flow. I suppose in a way it was fitting that we went to an organic winery for lunch. The entire day was focused on understanding where food came from and the ingredients involved. So when we started with Pignoletto Frizzante, made with 100% pigneletto grapes, I knew exactly what I was drinking. And, as the name suggests, it was slightly fizzy. Wonderful! Throughout the meal we actually had a taste of almost every wine on offer, plus one without a label. That’s how you know it’s good! N was closer to the wine bottle carnage and the corks seemed to be piled up in front of her. She wasn’t the one consuming the lion’s share though. She was sitting next a pair of British couples traveling together. They seemed to dominate the wine pouring extravaganza.

The beginning of the “light” lunch.

Our first course, after the bread, was juicy mellon topped with prosciutto. Alessandro recommended balsamic condiment drizzled on top. While I didn’t much care for prosciutto while at the factory, this combo was wonderful.

The second course was a small piece of lasagna. I knew this was going to be wonderful because I was having the dish where it was created. Something that I’ve noticed in the States is that many folks use cottage cheese in lasagna. The Italians use that fresh ricotta from the parmigiano-reggiano factories. I am not completely sure, but I think the noodles were made with spinach as well. Yummy!

The third dish was spaghetti with white truffle carbonara. Truffles aren’t a fungi that I often enjoy because of the cost and white truffles are the crème de la crème of the  subterranean mushroom. Of course white truffles come from northern Italy, so I was actually not only having a treat, but a local food as well. Since I was at an organic farmhouse, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were grown on the property. N doesn’t normally like mushrooms, but when mixed with the wonderful carbonara she was in spaghetti bliss.
I don't beg, I just wait for the third course

I should mention at this point that we are pretty full. The portions have been small, but our hosts continued to refill our plates to ensure they had no extras at the end of the meal. It was like going to grandma’s house. The Aussie sitting across from me physically covered her wine glass throughout the meal so that it wouldn’t keep being magically refilled. I didn’t mind since that should have meant more for me...except the Brits were monopolizing the wine refills!

The fourth course was a simple risotto dish cooked in the local Le Borre wine, which is made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This gave the dish a very rich color with the flavor to match. We were instructed that a little bit of parmigiano-reggiano on top was a good idea. I knew from prior research on Italy that unless they offer you the cheese, the dish probably isn’t meant to have it on top. This one didn’t disappoint.

The fifth course was...ummm, it idea. After having so many dishes, I don’t think I would have remembered even if I wrote this sooner. N and I agree there was a fifth course, but we have no idea what it was. It was good though. :)

The sixth, and final course was chicken thighs in the same Le Borre sauce as the risotto. The sides were local roasted veggies. While I really wanted to enjoy this dish, I was too full to have more than a bite. I wanted to take a break and have some wine but the bottles were all in front of the Brits. Damn!

After lunch we were offered coffee, which means espresso, and a small plate of bite-sized desserts. There were strawberries, brownies, and some type of wonderful lemon cake thing. This dish was small and delicate and I was able to have a few pieces of fruit.

It was time to be returned to the hotel. We were in the van with the Brits. They were a really lively bunch. The gentleman I was talking to kept dropping the F-bomb, which is friends commented that he only does when he was drunk. On the drive out and between locations there were probably five words spoken in the van. The way back was completely different. Once Brits have some alcohol, they completely open up. As a side note, I met a Croatian tennis player on a ferry in Croatia that used to live in London. She commented to us about her experience that the British weren’t very warm to outsiders. I suppose she just didn’t see enough of them drunk.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) III

Part 3 of K's Series

I have been reminded a few times that I haven’t completed this series. I apologize for that, but there were some interwebz difficulties while staying in Bol, Island of Brač, Croatia. Simply put they didn’t work so well from my working area. But I am now in Dubrovnik, Croatia and I have the capability to finish my series.

Our third (and final) stop before lunch on our Food Experience was a prosciutto ham factory. Much like parmigiano-reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar of Modena, there is a consortium that oversees the quality of DOP prosciutto.

property of
Seriously, it just sits there!

There really was too much to watch at the ham factory because it is mostly just waiting. I had always wrongfully assumed that prosciutto was smoked or heat treated in some way. Nope. Cold, salt, and pig are the core ingredients needed to make this delicious treat. It really was a food education!

I didn’t really enjoy the ham while at the factory with all the pork shoulders hanging around me, but I must admit that it was very sweet. Given the right temperature and proper care the sweetness of the pork really came out. It really makes me wonder why most American pork products end up with sugar in them. I suppose it is because we don’t want to wait...

Back to the process. The prosciutto factory receives fresh pork shoulders each week from a local butcher. There are very specific requirements on how old the pig is, what type of food it has received, and the type of conditions that it grew up in. If there is one thing I learned about DOP products, it is that everything is traceable from the field to the factory so that you know exactly what you are putting in your body. When the butcher drops off the shoulders, the delivery driver waits until each one is individually inspected to ensure it meets the standards of DOP prosciutto. The ones that don’t make the cut are sent back to the butcher and used for other products.

Once the shoulders are in the warehouse they are salted and then lots of time goes by. They are moved to different temperature-controlled rooms during the process, but that’s how it works: salt, wait, salt, wait, then wait some more! Unlike DOP parmigiano-reggiano cheese, which is certified by sound, a horse bone needle is poked into specific spots and the aroma is how the certification is made.

You have probably figured out that I haven’t mentioned the Brits in the post. That is because there really was nothing spectacular about this part of the trip. We didn’t even get very much wine! Part IV will fully explain the story when I talk about the “light” lunch we were served. :)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

No one in Croatia says “the best thing since sliced bread.” This is because they don’t have sliced bread. K says that we could make a fortune by bringing over sliced bread, fitted sheets, brooms, and peanut butter.

Tell me a swiffer wouldn't blow their minds.

It’s not that we’re bashing on Croatia, because we love this place. However, if there’s one thing traveling will do, it’s remind you of everything you miss from home.

I should start by saying that I’m suffering from some overwhelming homesickness at the moment, as I missed an important family event last weekend. Additionally, I’m taking an upcoming trip to my adventure partner’s home of origin, and the excitement of seeing our friends and family is about to kill me.

I feel incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to travel and see the world through the lens of other cultures. There’s nothing quite as cool as experiencing the way another country navigates through life.  I can also appreciate the things that other countries have embraced that I wish America had (roundabouts, open air markets, and free healthcare, anyone?) However, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten all of things that make my home special.

With that in mind, I dedicate this post to things that I miss about America.

1. Convenience. This doesn’t just mean the convenience of being able to buy ammo, a pregnancy test, bacon, and a lawn mower at two in the morning. Convenience is an all-encompassing phenomenon in the states. I can get anything I need, at any time, and I can probably get it from a drive-thru.

The biggest convenience I miss at this point is a washer and dryer. A full-size washer and dryer, not that 2-gallon combination piece of shit that Europe has embraced. I don’t want to say that I’m tired of washing my clothes in a mop bucket and stringing them around the room, but there’s probably more artistic ways to decorate a kitchen.

2. Grocery stores. Yes, every country has grocery stores, but not in the way that we know and love. This goes along with my comments on convenience. Grocery stores are not open at a time that would be conducive to anyone with a job. Even the ones that boast “24 hours” are only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. This means that everyone is trying to cram into the dairy aisle on Saturdays, and no one is enjoying themselves. Tesco is the most hostile place I’ve ever been.

Additionally, each country organizes their store in a different way, and it never makes sense. For example, you would think that cinnamon sticks would be in the aisle with the rest of the spices, right? No. Cinnamon sticks are located next to the flour, which is near the bakery, which is on the other side of the store.

Eggs should be in the refrigerated section next to the milk and butter, but instead you’ll find them on the shelf next to the canned hot dogs, because why the hell not? As an aside, canned hot dogs are surprisingly delicious. Desperation is an ugly animal.

3. Street signs. The first step to getting where you need to go is knowing where you are right now. I’m not even trying to be cute and metaphorical there; I seriously have no idea where the hell I am most of the time. You know those green signs with clearly printed white letters that tell you what street you’re on? Yeah, no one else does that.

Roads that are wide enough to accommodate two cars simultaneously are also a bit of an oddity. It’s much easier to build one lane, label it as 60 mph, and then put up a warning sign. Problem solved!

I could probably create an entirely separate blog about roads and all things automotive related, so I’ll limit this rant to one more thing: grid patterned streets. Miss your turn? That’s cool! Take the next one.

I understand that most of the roads in England are older than my country, so it makes sense that they would follow whatever plan was laid out centuries ago. However, they continue their eclectic patterns of squiggles and loops in their new developments, presumably so that it will blend with the rest of the area.

4. Familiar foods. I can’t belittle the culinary delights of the places I’ve visited. Every country has its own amazing dishes, from sushi in Japan to fresh feta in Greece. I love food, LOVE it, and the variety of flavors has been one of the most rewarding things about living and traveling abroad.

I wouldn’t trade the delicious food experiences I’ve had for anything, but everyone has their favorite foods from home. I make a list of specific things I have to eat each time I visit the states, and none of them could be considered culinary masterpieces. Red Lobster cheesy biscuits, Dairy Queen’s chicken strip basket (God help you if doesn’t have the country gravy), eggs benedict, and that bowl thing from KFC that has their entire menu swimming in mashed potatoes. Don’t act like you don’t know which one I’m talking about! None of these things could hold a candle to the homemade ricotta and balsamic vinegar I had in Italy, but I still miss them!

I miss them because they taste like home. They taste like happy memories at familiar places, and no amount of moussaka in Crete can make up for that (although God knows I’ve tried!) Which brings me to the most important thing I miss about home…

5. Friends and family (and friends that ARE family).
It doesn’t matter how many wonderful people I meet on my travels, no one will compare to my friends and family back home. Yes, you make look around at your family and think they’re all bat shit crazy (because they probably are) but they made you who you are today. They’re irreplaceable.

One of the driving forces behind a love of travel is the fact that you can be anyone you want during your trip. No one knows who you are. They don’t know your history or the fact that you still sucked your thumb all the way through kindergarten and are hopelessly uncoordinated. For all they know, you’re whoever (and whatever) you say you are.

At home, there are people who watched you puke all over your desk in Mr. B’s freshman science class, and they love you just the same. As cool as it is to be whoever you want to be for a week, there’s nothing quite the same as knowing that there’s people out there who love you unconditionally. No matter how much I see and how far I travel, these are the people that make me want to come home.

But I seriously need a washer and dryer.

When Life Gives You Lemons

…buy a liter of vodka. Wait, is that not how the saying goes? I guess I should start at the beginning.

We made it to Croatia! This is a feat to be celebrated, as we took a ferry across the Adriatic. The walls were so thin that when our neighboring cabin turned on their lights, our room had a nice ambient glow as well. In the end, the ship stayed afloat and we landed at Zadar.

The most exciting thing we did in Zadar was visit the sea organ. The sea organ is basically a musical instrument that crafts sounds based on the way the waves pump air into its pipes. It’s a massive concrete structure with holes drilled into it, each set to different notes. As the tides and waves change, the air blows through in different ways and creates a variety of sounds. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe. I sat and believed for quite some time, as can be evidenced by my sunburn.

We spent four lovely days at our apartment in Bibinje (Ba-bin-ya), which is just south of Zadar. Bibinje was a quiet village, but very laid-back and hospitable. I’ve never met such a welcoming group of people. Our landlady was kind enough to make us two different types of cake: one chocolate banana cream, and one cherry cheese. If there’s a way into my skeptical heart, it’s probably cake. In fact, her cake is the reason we’ll be leaving such a high review of her apartment.

The apartment itself was a bit lacking. To start, I chose that particular place because it boasted laundry facilities. “Facilities” simply met that she had a line strung in the front lawn, and a tub for hand washing our clothes. This really wasn’t much of a problem, since we’ve been hand washing our clothes for the last few weeks. Oh the things I would do for a full size washer and dryer!!

The real downside was that the place didn’t offer air conditioning. As I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t that uncommon. However, there wasn’t even a fan. We spent four fairly miserable, sticky nights with the windows open. Opening the windows meant we invited in a variety of critters, from bugs to lizards, and we also got to experience the sounds of the Croatian nightlife. I learned that a cat fight and a chorus of barking dogs sound the same in every country, and that midnight is the best time to use a table saw.

That being said, Croatia is my new favorite country. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, as well as being the most friendly.  Everyone is willing to lend a hand, whether it be directions to the beach or the best way to get from one island to another.

We’re currently staying in an awesome apartment on the Croatian island of Brac. It has lemon, orange, and olive trees growing right outside our door. Our landlord said he only grows them so his guests can enjoy them, and we have definitely obliged his request. I’ve never seen a lemon tree, let alone picked fresh lemons with my own hands. They are amazing! They’re sun ripened and warm, and they have this incredibly sweet yet tangy scent.

I picked that with my bare hands!

The first time my adventure partner set one in my palm, I thought “vodka tonic,” and we walked straight to the corner store. I don’t want to say too readily that I’ve found heaven, but if it exists on earth, it might just be in Croatia.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) II

Part 2 of K's Series

I started off the first post with a teaser about how you’ve probably never had real balsamic vinegar. This is actually the post where I explain that view. Real balsamic vinegar is the “balsamico di Modena” which is a region near Tuscany. Unlike the parmigiano-reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar can be translated. Similar to the wonderful cheese though it is regulated by the same consortium and the real stuff holds the “DOP” seal of approval. You know you’ve got the real thing because there is a special 100ml bottle that holds the tasty black gold. And it’s slightly expensive. The 12 year old (youngest allowed) will set you back around €40 with the extravecchio (25 years and older) running into the €100s.

the only difference between makers is the label

Taking a step back a bit, I’d like to show you how balsamic is made. I have always thought that oil and vinegar with bread was wonderful. The flavor of balsamic vinegar mixed with the EVOO just made so much sense in my mouth. I figured that balsamic vinegar was a byproduct of making wine. You make wine and then you have the left over grape musk which makes the vinegar. I was only partially correct. Proper balsamic isn’t a byproduct, it is the product. Traditional, DOP approved, balsamic vinegar has one ingredient: cooked grape musk. The grapes can vary (slightly), but that’s it. That’s all true balsamic vinegar is.

The pink bunny has nothing on this!

Now it really doesn’t matter too much, which is why I never knew that fact, but it is amazing. To make the balsamico di Modena they put the cooked grape musk into a set of five or more successfully smaller barrels, known as a battery. Then they wait. Each year they take liquid from the larger barrels to refill the smaller and repeat for 12 years. Then, with DOP approval, they can produce 1L per battery. Ninety percent of that can be bottled and sold and ten percent is kept by the consortium, no doubt as “quality control.” Just like Her Majesty's Custom Service quality controlled my ornamental Japanese sword, no doubt.

There are other options of course, if they wait 25 years they have a different type, it’s the extra special (name of old stuff). The “factory,” which was actually just a villa, that we went to was Villa San Donnino and they supplement their income with balsamico condimento (balsamic condiment) which is a six year vintage mixed with wine vinegar. By law they aren’t allowed to call it balsamic vinegar because it isn’t, not really. Their particular one is called “nerone” and it is going to be great on some salad!

The Brits.

My title would have you believe that there is a story behind the British reference and now I will start threading that story. The finale, of course, will be in part four. :) Our tour group of the food experience consisted of 14 people, mostly old couples...and us. There were minorities of Americans and Australians with the core group being English. I’m pretty sure that the Brit next to us had not only never had true balsamic vinegar, but never had vinegar in the first place. Which is strange considering the Brits invented “brown sauce” which is a vinegar-based bbq sauce. I didn’t see it first-hand but my adventure partner assures me that her face was priceless. She hated every one of the samples we tried. We had commercial balsamic vinegar with more ingredients that are pronounceable, a white balsamic condiment, balsamic condiment, 12 year old balsamic, and a 45 year balsamic. I felt like I was at a Scotch tasting. The Brit was having none of it...poor woman.

Something unexpected.

Do you remember the ricotta I mentioned in the first part of this series? Alessandro bought some of the fresh stuff and served it at the balsamic villa. We had ricotta with balsamic jelly on top. This was simply wonderful and I’m not sure if having the same thing from store-bought would have the same flavor (when I try I’ll let you know). For dessert we had gelato with the nerone drizzled on top. I had no idea that gelato and balsamic vinegar could be so wonderful!


Many Italians in the region make balsamic vinegar but don’t go through the pain of having it certified for sale. It’s for family use. The traditional model is that a battery is made on the birth of each child by a special group of coopers in the region. I say special because there are actually openings in the barrels because the evaporation each year plays an important role in the process. So how did the folks at Villa San Domnino get involved in actually being one of the 100ish families that actually sell the product? When the current owner’s family bought the 1900s villa in the 40s, they discovered a few balsamic batteries in the attic. They now sell 50 bottles of year of the 100 year old balsamic. I couldn’t afford it, but the 45 year old looked like molasses, so I can only guess the brilliant flavor of the kingpin of their operation.

Next up: the prosciutto farm

Odds and Ends from Bologna

K found us an unbelievable deal on the hotel we’ve been staying at for the last six days. I have no idea what kind of voodoo magic website he went to when he booked this place, but hats off to him. The only catch is that they charge for Internet, which is why you haven’t seen many posts this week. In fact, they charge for everything, so I’ve been making good use of my laundry on the road skills.

I have to add that this hotel has the weirdest toilet I’ve ever seen. It’s some kind of suction powered thing, but you have to punch this big button somewhere between 4 and 25 times before it finally “powers up” and flushes. It’s like cranking a generator, which is pretty much the last thing I want to do in the middle of the night. I’m going to have freakishly muscular thumbs by the time we leave this place. I take consolation in the fact that our neighbors appear to be having a worse time of it than we are, based on the number of times I can hear them pushing the button and yelling in their bathroom.

In other news, we’ve been exploring the local grocery stores, trying out a variety of foods and discount beverages. This afternoon we bought a bottle of 1 euro “champagne” which was so classy it decided to open itself while sitting on the desk. It was like an alcoholic shotgun went off in our room. Scared the ever-loving bejeebus out of me, which was evidenced by the screaming of “Oh holy shit!” and diving for cover.

I'll take a mimosa!

Tonight we finally went to the dive restaurant down the street from our hotel. I don’t know why this is, but in every country one rule seems to hold true: The dodgier the exterior, the better the food. This place was no exception. Their pasta rocked and they topped it off with freshly grated Parmesan. I heart Italy. I’m glad I didn’t find this gem of a restaurant until tonight, or I would have been there for every meal.

The next place we’re staying at in Croatia doesn’t have Internet either, but I imagine we’ll be able to find a café somewhere to indulge our blogging and Cracked reading needs. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you on the other side of the Adriatic!

Relaxing in Bologna

If you’ve been reading K’s four part special on our Italian food tour, you know that we had to get up crazy early to stand outside and wait for our ride (who was late). The single gulp of coffee I was able to choke down before running out the door was scalding hot on the back of my throat, and I was in a fairly pissy mood.

As we drove to our destination, I noticed all of the angry drivers laying on their horns and realized that it was a Monday morning. Glancing at my watch, I saw that only two weeks before, I would’ve been driving to work. Now I was watching the sunrise over the Tuscan countryside on a highway to Milan. I continued to stare out the window, seeing the tiny villages give way to vineyards dotting the hills, and couldn’t help but smile. Never again will I start off my week with that commute.

We originally decided that we would stay in Bologna and day trip out to Florence and Pisa. On the day we wanted to go to Florence, we stood in four different lines at the train station, looking for a ticket machine that would accept cash since our American credit cards are pretty much useless here. After 30 frustrating minutes, I turned to my adventure partner and said, “I’m just going to throw an idea out here, and you can throw it right back. What if we just said ‘fuck it’ and stayed in Bologna for the day?”

He quickly agreed and after a few minutes of walking, we ended up at this amazing park over looking the city. I was surprised how many people were in the park, considering it was a Tuesday morning. For the most part, they were sitting around on the benches, chatting with each other, and smoking cigarettes.

The scene reminded me of Spain. Our tour guide in Barcelona had explained that unemployment amongst young adults in the city is at 52%, so they have some free time on their hands.

Whether in Barcelona or Bologna, no one seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere. After an hour or so, we wandered from one end of the city to the other, and ended up at a different park. Same story. Loads of people sleeping in the sun, picnicking, and chain-smoking their way through another long afternoon.

I thought to myself, ‘When in Bologna,’ and sat down next to the pond. I watched turtles, fish of all sizes, ducks, and geese splash in the water. I played 15 games of Sudoku (the difficult ones, IN PEN!!). I drank two cups of espresso and ate some salami from the co-op. I spent another hour people-watching. Pleather is making a huge comeback here.

I returned to the park today, where I read a book for an hour and drank a beer in the sun. Then I lay in the grass and watched the clouds for a while. I think the last time I watched the clouds was when I was a child, and I’ve been missing out. When I was kid, I would think to myself, ‘That one looks like a marshmallow!’ My adult brain is much more creative. ‘That one looks like a three-legged Welsh Corgi laying on a throw pillow next to Charlie Sheen!’

My brain can only focus on cute things now.

My ever-pragmatic adventure partner says that the last two days should’ve demonstrated to me why the European economy is in the toilet. For now, I’m choosing to ignore that fact. Maybe it’s the sun or that I’m just not as stressed out from continually hating my job, but my time in the park has been some of the most relaxing few days of my life. I’ve finally had a few hours to simply sit in the grass and think. I didn’t worry about what I had to do next, and for once I wasn’t in a hurry.

I might not be able to maintain this lifestyle forever, but I hope that when I return to “normal” I’ll still take the time to watch the clouds, if only to see what shapes emerge. Most of all, I hope I can cling to my newfound ability to slow down and (literally) smell the roses.

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) I

The first part of K's four part series. Enjoy!

You’ve probably never had real balsamic vinegar. I didn’t realize that was true for me until a few days ago when I had the opportunity to have the real stuff! Let me tell you about what I’ve learned. Read on with this four part series on our food experience.

To start things off, I should give you some history. As I’m writing this I’m sitting in my hotel room in Bologna, Italy. Bologna is a really fun city to explore and it doesn’t take that long. Most of the main streets are arcaded which makes even the hottest day enjoyable. It holds Europe’s oldest university (est. 1088) and is a must for any culinary adventure. I bet when you think of “ragu,” you probably think of a brand of spaghetti sauce. Ragù is actually the name of the local bolognese sauce which is exactly what you think it is (expect there isn’t added sugar). Additionally tortellini and lasagna have their origins in the region. I’ve been in love with this region and I didn’t even know it! If pasta isn’t your thing, they also created mortadella, which we know as baloney. In my opinion, this makes Bologna the culinary equivalent to a Roman forum.

The city is not very touristy, which is really nice, and most of the things worth seeing in the city center are actually free. We did find a tour that did look very interesting though. It’s called Italian Days Food Experience and it offers “culinary adventure and food education.” I had no idea how true that was going to be.

You always have to wonder about a tour you can only research online, but when we looked at the reviews on TripAdvisor we found over 300 reviews which were all five stars. This just doesn’t happen online. The last time that happened was when I found a five star cat heating pad on Amazon. The cats loved it! But back to the story...we knew we were in a for a treat. The tour is run by a wonderful couple, Alessandro and Barbara. Barbara handled all of the emailing and scheduling and Alessandro actually conducted the tour. On our chosen day we had to get up crazy early and be outside our hotel at 7:25am. The driver was 10 minutes late, but Alessandro gave us a call to let us know they were running late. Once we got picked up we were driven about 25 miles outside the city in a quiet, unmarked van. Luckily, the driver was wearing an Italian suit and aviators, so we knew it was legit.

The first stop on our food experience was a parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory. The surrounding area smelled of cow manure, which told me the place made fresh cheese. Since the outside of the building was so nondescript, I can only tell you that it was the factory that stamps their cheese 2552. So if you ever see that on a wheel of cheese, we’ve been there! We got out of the van to be greeted by an energetic man named Alessandro. He was wearing a pair of Keds that were colored to look like an Italian flag and a T-shirt of Rembrandt in a beret drinking a coffee from a straw. Very classy! :)

We quickly learned about what real parmigiano-reggiano cheese is and how it is actually controlled by an consortium that holds regulating authority. I’ll spare you the details but the important part is that Denominazione di origine controllata, controlled designation of origin, or simply DOP is the all powerful authority. I learned why we were at the cheese factory so early, they actually start to make the cheese around 5am. We missed the cooking part, but were able to watch them pull the cheese out of the massive 110 gallon copper cooking vats.

Pulling the curd

They began pulling the massive blocks of cheese out and the head chef (I guess you could call him the big cheese) cut them into what would become the cheese wheel. We were slightly shocked by the lack of hairnet and tank top, but with cheese this tasty, what are you to do?

The big cheese

Following this, we toured the rest of the cheese factory to learn about the rest of the process and how much waiting is involved. Before I give you the quick version, I wanted to point out that we also go to see ricotta being made. It’s actually just recooked milk/water/salt and a little steam. It’s a byproduct of the process of making parmigiano-reggiano. The factory sells the fresh stuff to make some extra money. Back to the real cheese.

Cheese vault

Parmigiano-reggiano cheese must be aged at least 12 months and then be individually certified by the DOP to actually be called parmigiano-reggiano. The cheese comes in three grades, parmigiano-reggiano first grade, second grade, and simply “cheese.” Third grade doesn’t get to be called parmigiano-reggiano. In the US if the name is translated, then it isn’t the real thing. If you see a wedge of cheese you can tell the difference because each piece has been labeled, if you can read the parmigiano-reggiano, then it’s first grade. If it has lines in it, second grade. Can’t see any writing? Cheese. Oh and the DOP actually uses sound alone to determine the grade the cheese receives. Uniform sound is the good stuff. :)

Seal of approval

After the tour we were given some Lambrusco, which is a local fizzy red wine. There was also some 14 and 24 month samples of cheese. The older the cheese the more “crystals” that are in it. I had always assumed this was the salt in the cheese, but I learned that it is actually the free amino acids that have been created in the process. Already one fourth finished with my culinary adventure and I received a food education.

Next up: the balsamic vinegar “factory” and why Brits are better drunk

Friday, 8 June 2012

When in Rome

As I sat down to write this post, I commented to my adventure partner that our apartment here in Rome reeks of eggplant and grease. We made parmesan-garlic battered eggplant for dinner and I had the fan turned on “high” so I couldn’t figure out why the scent was so strong. We just noticed that the fan above the stove vents into the room. So that was pretty pointless. I also remarked that it was weird that we didn’t set off the smoke alarm, but that’s because we don’t have one. I think I love Italy.

The best part about our apartment is the air conditioning (which was included free of charge!) We also have some more interesting amenities in the bathroom.

Me:     Ah, Christ. They have one of those things that freak me out.

K:        A bidet?

Me:     Yeah. I never know how to use these things.

K helpfully straddled the bidet while fully clothed and turned on the spigot.

K:       You just kind of do like this, you know, but with more splashing.

Like every American before me, I nodded and decided that I’m still not totally sold on the idea.

Still doesn't do it for me.

We spent a fair amount of time lazing about in our apartment. We didn’t eat out at a single restaurant while we were in Rome, preferring to save on expenses by shopping at the grocery store and making our own Italian dishes at home. We’re saving our culinary delights for Bologna, where we won’t have a kitchen and the restaurants are much cheaper.

The food we have made ourselves has been amazing! We’ve gone through a half a liter of olive oil, piles of fresh fruit and veggies, way too much Parmesan and balsamic vinegar, and a bit of fresh baked bread and basil-spinach pasta.

One pepper will get you through a few meals.

The only food we’ve had that wasn’t from the grocery store was the tiramisu gelato we had outside the Vatican. I imagine Jesus himself made it, as that’s the only way I can justify paying 8 euro for an ice cream cone.

The Vatican, like my gelato, was completely overrated. I’ve always wanted to visit the Sistine Chapel to gawk at Michelangelo’s work. I considered the Vatican to be the Catholic equivalent of a trip to Mecca. Like everything good in life, hoards of tourists have turned it into some kind of nightmare.

First of all, do not go to the Vatican at opening time. We wandered by the line at 9:00 am, and the crowds wrapped around two streets. I’ve never seen anything like it. Thousands of people baking in the Mediterranean sun, as aggressive salesmen tried to hawk their wares. When we returned at 11:30, there were maybe 50 people in front of us. Perfect.

These 50 people combined with the hundreds who were still in line to get into the Sistine Chapel. I should preface this by saying I hate crowds, mostly because there is a direct correlation between the number of people and the amount of stupid shit they think they can get away with. Anonymity changes people and all traces of human decency die in a crowd. Imagine an airport, and tell me I’m not wrong.

This is the only reason I can come up with for why people think it’s acceptable to toss their garbage on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, while pushing and shoving each other down the marble stairs and completely ignoring the clearly posted dress code. Jesus doesn’t want to see your sunburnt tits.

The other major downside to the Vatican (which really shouldn’t have surprised me) is that they charge for EVERYTHING. We decided to mail postcards to our moms from the Vatican post office so they could have a cool stamp (surprise, Moms!) They won’t let you borrow a pen; you have to buy one for 1.50 euro. I call bullshit, but that being said, I now own a Vatican pen. Sigh.

The other attractions we saw in Rome were totally worth it. I played the part of the wide-eyed, stunned tourist at the Colosseum.

It's just so cool!!

Don’t stand in line at the Colosseum itself. Wander up the road a bit further to the Roman Forum entrance where there’s no line, and buy your tickets there. The ticket to the Forum includes your entrance fee for everything else, and the exit dumps you directly in front of the Colosseum.

The Forum

The Colosseum, like every attraction in Europe, is surrounded by people trying to sell you things, but they weren’t as aggressive as I’m used to seeing and they were open to haggling. I bought two silk scarves to prevent further burning my pasty Euro-tanned skin.

My favorite place to visit was the Pantheon, and not just because it was free. It’s in remarkably good shape for being a few thousand years old, and the interior was gorgeous. Don’t forget to take a picture of Raphael’s tomb while you’re there, but avoid taking any pictures with the gladiators. They charge for that.

All in all, Rome was a great place to visit. The local wine is cheap, the produce is delicious, and the Italian (not Vatican) postal workers were friendly and helpful.

You can't turn around without seeing a cool sculpture.

The metro is easy to use, but not nearly as clean as Barcelona’s. I’m glad we opted for an apartment while we were here, as I desperately needed to do my laundry somewhere other than a hostel shower and having our own kitchenette was great, even if I am sitting in a haze of eggplant parmesan smoke.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

More Coffee!!!

This is a guest post from K and a follow-up to N's "Coffee!!"

4chan is an English-language imageboard website. It has been around for almost a decade and has been the source of many internet memes. It is also believed to be the site that spawned the hacktivist group Anonymous. They are known for creating the "rules of the internet." Of note is Rule 34 which essentially states: if it exists, there is porn of it. I think this idea can actually go a step further and I posit that "if you like something, there is a fanboy for it."

Take for example coffee. We all love coffee right? I know I do! As you know from N's post, you realize we love the stuff. While I am not a fanboy, I do research the subject. If you look through the forums of CoffeeGeek you will see some interesting comments regarding how coffee should be made for that perfect cup. Honestly, I don't really care; I think Two Buck Chuck tastes good, so I'm in it for the flavor, not the process.

That being said, coffee is something that can raise much debate. As an American, when I think of coffee, I admit that I think of this:

Starbucks has nothing on this!
There are other alternatives that many American's are used to. For example, in N's office they were going through so much coffee each day that her office opted for the industrial option.

An office of ~5 went through two of these!

But the thing about coffee is that each country has their own take on things. When N bought our first drip coffee maker in England the clerk asked, "oh, is this a gift?" Why? Because nobody in England drinks the stuff! For some reason, unknown to me, England prefers freeze dried coffee…just add hot water!

Doesn't that look yummy?!

Of course in many parts of Europe, you are likely to have a French press brought to your table while dining out. Of course it isn't called that in places that dislike the French, so you may know it by the name cafetiere or coffee press.

I bet Congress renamed it to "freedom press."

Then there is the Italian coffee pot that N just wrote about. It's almost a percolator, but not quite. I thought I was having espresso, but because there is a certifiying authority for espresso, which requires water pressure of 9 bar (± 1) for "true" espresso. The moka pot can only obtain a max of 1.5 bar. I know you're probably bummed out by this fact, but it still tastes good, so don't worry too much.

If you're interested in more details of your coffee options, lifehacker did a nice piece last year on some of the options covered here. My advice though, drink what tastes good to you, don't worry about what the "experts" think.

Well, while I've been writing this, N has been dancing around making another cup, so I'm off to enjoy some more moka pot coffee. I will leave you with another Jenna Marbles video because I've never used one (N doesn't want to use them in every post.)

Ciao for now!


I had planned on seeing the sights of Rome today but I can’t because I’m HOPPED THE FUCK UP on caffeine. I just want to jump around and dance and I’m pretty sure that’s frowned upon at the Vatican.

So how did this happen?

First, a little background on me. I need coffee. NEED it. Before coffee I’m a pleasant mix of stupid and bitchy. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to all of my fellow commuters. I stand by my point that you shouldn’t have a license, but all of the things I said about your mother were uncalled for.

Anyway, I woke this morning and wandered in to see my adventure partner staring at an odd contraption that was supposed to be our coffee maker. I only know it was for coffee because the night before our helpful landlady pointed to it and said, “For coffee.”

He was deep into his CSI investigative mode, staring at various bits and pieces and saying things like, “I think this part goes on a fire, due to the burn marks,” and “This bit smells like coffee. I think the grounds go in here.” Then we remembered that we have the Internet, and quickly solved the case.

The contraption we’re dealing with is called a moka pot. Wikipedia taught us how to make coffee in it, and we sampled what may be the most delicious beverage we’ve ever made. It is FANTASTIC! I thought to myself, “When in Rome,” and we had a cup or six. (Side note, I’m using the phrase “When in Rome” every time it could remotely make sense for the next four days.) Later, my adventure partner pointed out that this method of preparation results in a much higher caffeine content than the normal drip style.

It was about this time that all of the coffee caught up to me and my brain did something like this:

I intend to ride this high for as long as possible and then crash for an afternoon nap. Meanwhile, my adventure partner will write a guest post, sharing all of his research in the various types of coffee preparation. The man is nothing if not well researched. Peace out for now, I’m going to go run a few laps around the apartment.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

So My Roommate's a Douche (and other facts of hostel life)

Hostels are whole different breed of animal from your traditional housing options. Much like hotels and motels, once you start swapping out letters your selection of amenities changes dramatically. A hostel is somewhere between that dive next to the Interstate and summer camp, but with a hint of psych ward thrown in just to keep things interesting. Before you immediately think, “Oh hell no!” allow me to elaborate on the subtleties of hostel living.

I’ve stayed in many hostels, mostly because I’m cheap and have a certain flair for disastrous excitement. Some people get their kicks from skydiving; I prefer off the wall accommodation. For the record, every example I’m about to give is a completely true and accurate account of my experiences.

Some hostels greet you at the door with a stack of free drink tickets and a beer stein full of condoms. These aren’t good hostels; these are the BEST hostels. It could be the shittiest place in the world, but if you give me free drinks, you’re getting a 5 star review.

Other hostels greet you with the offer to help suck the cocaine they just spilled out of the carpet. These are not good hostels. Offering to share with a stranger is generally considered to be a sign of good manners, but there’s some things that the 5 second rule just can’t cover.

Some hostels forget to mention that they’re still under construction and that they also share a quad with the local gospel singing group. Good luck getting any sleep there.

Some hostels are all night parties, and you will participate whether you want to or not. Others are like sleeping in a crypt.

Sometimes the average age is 15-18, other times it’s 40+. Some hostels even have family floors, so don’t be surprised if you see children running around from time to time.

My point is that no hostel is the same, so I can’t really write about a “typical” hostel experience, but I’ll do my best to explain some of the most common features.

For the most part, every additional amenity will cost extra at a hostel. You want sheets? That’s going to be an extra 2.50. Towels? Same deal. You want a lock for your locker? That’ll set you back a euro. Be prepared and bring you own stuff. A microfiber travel towel is a necessity for a cheap and happy hostel experience.

If you don’t choose a private room (which will cost significantly more) you’ll be in a dorm. You can choose between male and female dorms or co-ed. Either option is fine, and you’ll also be able to choose between 4, 6, 8, and even up to 32 bed dorms. Dorms feature bunk beds and lockers for you stuff. Use your locker whenever you’re out of the room, even if it’s just a quick trip to the bathroom.

The lockers in the most recent place we stayed at.

Speaking of bathrooms, these can also be co-ed, and sometimes you won’t know until the opposite sex exits the shower next to you. That’s ok; don’t freak out. Showers can range from sparkling to … yeah. Bring your shower shoes.

Some showers have this awesome feature where you push a button and the water comes out for 10-30 seconds. What really adds to the fun is that the water seems to be a different temperature every time you push the button. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with ice water and potential scalding. You’ll most likely experience cold water in this situation, as hot water is a precious commodity in most hostels. Some even charge for it, so make sure you have some change available.

Heat is typically free in hostels because they don’t want their pipes to freeze, but air conditioning is completely optional. If your hostel offers free air conditioning, use the hell out of it and don’t be that jackass who turns off the AC when your roommates aren’t looking. We don’t give a shit if you’re cold. Put on a sweater and shut the hell up.

Speaking of roommates, you’re sharing your space with complete strangers. These strangers are the type of people who won’t spring for traditional accommodation and probably enjoy an alternative lifestyle of traveling and not holding down steady employment. In other words, you’re going to meet some interesting characters, and you’d be surprised how many people snore.

If you’re the type of person who sees the glass as half full and believes that the world is generally full of good people, you’ll enjoy the hostel experience. If you’re like me and are a bit more cynical, you’ll probably find the same ratio of cool people and assholes that you experience everywhere else. Look around the subway, then imagine sharing a room with your fellow travelers.

If all else fails, remember that everyone you meet is bat shit crazy, just in varying degrees and ways. This includes you. You are just as crazy as everyone else, so you may as well embrace it.

Most hostels have a shared, industrial-style kitchen where everyone cooks their food. If you’re saving money by staying in a hostel, you’re also probably not eating out at restaurants. Write your name, your room number, and the date you plan on leaving on your stuff in the fridge. Anything that’s not labeled is considered to be free for the community. Additionally, not cleaning up after yourself is a serious faux pas in the hostel world, so wash your dishes.

I’ve met a lot of really cool people in hostels and have had some amazing times. I imagine I’ll be that old person who still stays in hostels during her retirement. This post may seem to bash on the hostel life a bit, but that’s only because I think people generally have a better time if they go into a situation with eyes wide open. The lower your expectations, the happier you will be. If you know what to expect and understand that a hostel is not like staying at the Hilton, you will be fine and you’ll probably have an awesome time. If you’re roommate’s a douche, just avoid him. Either you or him will move on eventually, and it’s just a bed.

Side note: as I write this, I'm overhearing a conversation about one of my hostel mates who drank gasoline. Apparently it makes you very tired, and you should avoid it at all possible. So that's a life tip I can take away from this hostel.

Surprisingly not as refreshing as Gatorade.

Sagrada Familia

No trip to Barcelona would be complete without visiting Sagrada Familia, so that’s where we started. Sagrada Familia is a massive basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. It’s been under construction since 1882 and won’t be completed for at least another decade. Their goal is to complete the entire thing in 2026, to celebrate the centennial of Gaudi’s death, but I think that’s a rather ambitious goal.

The construction is a private contract, and many things have contributed to the length of its construction. Funding will always be an issue for a building of this magnitude, but even more problematic was the Spanish Civil War. Plans and photographs were stolen, and sections of the church were destroyed. Luckily, construction continues, and the entrance fees to visit the church are contributed to the building fund. Even though it’s not complete, it was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It’s a stunning building, inside and out. You could stare at it for days and never see all of the details. Each and every piece of the cathedral represents something, from the number of pillars to the style of the façades.

We arrived at the Passion Façade, which was K’s favorite portion of the exterior.  As expected, it depicts the Passion of Christ, but we would have missed half of the details if we hadn’t spent the extra 3 euro on the audio guide. For example, on one section of the wall is a series of numbers that is actually a puzzle. No matter how you add up the rows and columns of numbers, they always equal 33, or Jesus’s age when he died. All of the sculptures on this façade are sharply carved and free of ornamentation. The entire wall appears stark and skeletal, but it’s oddly attractive.

Inside, it’s a cascade of colors and columns. Gaudi’s love of nature can be seen in every detail, from the way the pillars resemble a forest to the spiral shell staircase that seemingly reaches towards the heavens.

The columns are meant to look like a forest.

I’ve visited more cathedrals than I can count, in several countries, and nothing prepared me for the beauty of this interior. I can’t put into words how gorgeous this structure is, and pictures just can’t do it justice.

Light from the stained glass reflecting off the pipe organ.

Catholic or not, this basilica will leave you speechless for a moment. You can view the official image gallery of the building here.

We exited through the Glory Façade, which will eventually be the main entrance to the church. On the massive door, you can read “Our Daily Bread” in 50 different languages.

We wrapped around to the Nativity Façade, which is the busiest looking section of the church. It is literally covered with sculptures and decorations, which is meant to be a contrast to the Passion Façade. Everywhere you look you see trees, animals, and scenes of Jesus’s birth and childhood. Above all of this stands a sculpture of the Tree of Life, with doves nesting in the branches.

We spent almost 3 hours at Sagrada Familia, and I can’t wait to return. I would love to see the finished product, so I guess we’ll be returning to Barcelona in 15 years or so.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Adventure Preparedness

Good morning from Barcelona! You may be looking at the time stamp on this post and thinking, “N, it’s 2:30 in the morning. Don’t the adventure partners sleep?” Well, yes. Yes we do. However, we got stupid drunk off of sangria and took a “siesta” from 7:00 pm until I woke up looking for Motrin, so here we are. It wasn’t even good sangria; it was the 3 euro plastic bottle from the liquor store and it would’ve been the 1 euro bottle had the clerk not persuaded me otherwise. My Spanish may be crap, but I understand a head shake and a “No no no!” when I hear it.

See all of those natural ingredients? Yeah, ours had none of that.

Normally when I wake up in the middle of the night, I would be upset and wondering how I could possibly go back to sleep. Then I realized that as a newly unemployed individual, I don’t have to maintain any sort of “normal” schedule. My commute involves rolling over and plugging in the laptop. I’m like a call girl for words.

But I digress. Back to the original point of the post, which is preparing and arriving in Barcelona.  I tried to pack several times. "Packing" involved standing in front of my closet, looking at my new backpack, and realizing that everything I needed was not going to fit. Then I’d distract myself by watching back episodes of Californication.

The day before our trip I decided it was time to get serious. I moved everything I wanted to one side of the closet. Then I looked at the backpack, realized it wouldn’t fit, and got a pedicure instead. My bag may not have been packed, but my toes looked fabulous, and that’s good enough for me.

I didn’t actually pack until an hour before we had to leave for the airport. It started out something like this…

Then I tried to walk around with my overloaded backpack. I couldn’t have carried it to the check-in desk, let alone the rest of the trip.

I pared everything down to 2 skirts, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of capris, 3 tank tops, 3 T-shirts, 2 pairs of sandals, and a swimsuit, as well as essential undergarments, toiletries, and a bandana. For a month. All told, my luggage weighed less than 20 pounds at the airport, so I’m quite proud of myself. (We won’t discuss the weight of the carry on…)

One of our friends was kind enough to drive us to the airport, all while giving us restaurant recommendations for our trip. Italy sounds delicious.

After a rousing trip to the airport bar to celebrate our new found freedom, we successfully made it to Spain and took the airport shuttle to the metro.

The Barcelona metro is super clean and easy to use. I may have lived in England for too long because I was shocked by the lack of garbage and the fact that it didn’t smell like piss. Thank you, Spain. It’s the little things that count.

Look how clean that is!

We chose the T10 metro card, which is an excellent deal. Each trip costs us less than a euro, more than one person can use the same card, and it doesn’t expire for a year. You just swipe the card for your adventure partner and after they figure out how to use a turnstile, you swipe yourself through. It works out to being more than 50% off the normal price of 10 rides.

We finally made it to our hostel and checked into our dorm. We’ve been exploring the sights and sounds of Barcelona ever since, but that’s the topic of another post. Gracias for reading!
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