Our mini-retirement consists of exactly 73 nights abroad followed by about 2 weeks of stay-cation / getting settled back in our home before returning to work. So we've just passed the midpoint of our travels. In some ways, it feels like it's been ages. In other ways, just a blip. C'est la vie.
While we've been failing hardcore at keeping you all updated on our activities recently, there are a few overarching topics that are easy-ish to cover and may prove useful to our readers (and/or ourselves) in the future. The first of those topics is, of course, FOOD! Looking back, we really ought to have taken pictures of the food we've been eating. We're not normally food-photographers, so it didn't occur to us. But we have been taking notes, which I'll weave in below.
The day after Marcus and I did our epic bicycle-and-food tour of Paris (read more), we decided to tighten our wallets a little bit and grab some falafel at L'As du Fallafel in the Jewish Quarter. Unfortunately, we forgot it was the sabbath and found it closed. We ended up at a typical Parisian bistro around the corner and ordered the cheapest/only things on the menu that were vegetarian -- a pizza and a bowl of spaghetti -- only to have the British lady next to us go on a not-quiet-enough rant about "Americans" and "pizza" and "refuse to eat the local food, even when traveling." Marcus heard her; I did not. Otherwise, she probably would have gotten an earful from me. Anyhoo. With 73 nights on the road, we're eating a full assortment of foods -- domestic and foreign, novel and familiar, good and bad.
In the end, during our time in Paris, we got more than our fill of breads, pastries, jams, cheeses, crepes, fondue, sorbet, and cheap rosé. Additional notes:
- Blé Sucré - certainly the best croissants we've ever had
- Le Grenier à Pain - certainly the best baguettes we've ever had
- Fromagerie Laurent Dubois - we enjoyed a small, citrus & pepper goat cheese for about €6, but would try a different flavor next time
- Berthillon - the cassis sorbet is an experience, but I'd try another flavor next time
- Le Tres Particulier - the entrance to this speakeasy is through 2 wrought iron gates up a cobblestone street. Don't be afraid to explore, but its cocktails and atmosphere aren't as good as NYC/DC speakeasies
- Le Refuge des Fondus - this is a tourist trap that's somewhat dirty with mediocre fondue. But it's too fun to pass up if you've just arrived and need alcohol and people (in that order). €22 fixed gets you a pot of cheese fondue with bread (no veggies), a baby bottle full of house wine (to mitigate party fouls), and a dessert.
- Marché Bastille - having gone to several other urban food markets in Europe now, we are really disappointed to have missed out on this one. I'm sure it is a must-do, even though we didn't
- La Grande Epicerie de Paris - a big and very expensive gourmet food grocery store. Good for picking up gifts, but it's best to try cheaper places first and only come here for the things you can't find elsewhere.
- A favorite eat: orange sorbet in a frozen, hollow rind. Lemon, too
Anticipating the astronomical prices and the fact that we'd be camping and hiking in Norway, we packed our bags accordingly... From the US, we had lugged a 4-pound bag of CostCo trail mix, a 12-pack of Clif bars, 4 packs of Shot Bloks, and 3 bars of Seattle Chocolate (my favorite). At Paris's Monoprix, we picked up Nutella, peanut butter, jam, bread, Pringles, and packaged soup. And at Norway's Spar, we got some oatmeal, tea, apple juice, bananas, eggs, cheese, more bread, and microwavable meals.
Since we were in Norway for 12 days, we couldn't completely avoid eating out (and didn't want to), but Norwegian food is both expensive and mediocre -- easily 2-3 times as expensive as food in DC, so every meal out was somewhat of a stressful event. Also, in a country with dramatically low population density, the options are quite limited outside of Oslo. Raw or cooked salmon with a very heavily mayonnaised potato salad and cucumber slices. Or bad pizza. The Norwegians LOVE their bad pizza.* :) LOVE it. That isn't to say that there were pizza shops everywhere -- the only thing that is "everywhere" in Norway is nature -- but it's more like when there IS a restaurant, 50% of the time, it's a pizza place. You can also find the obligatory ham and cheese (ost og skinke) at convenience stores and coffee shops, of course, but those, too, will cost you. And there's the occasional Asian restaurant -- generally either Chinese or sushi.** But, that's roughly the parameters you're working with. In summary: Don't go to Norway for the food; go for the mind-blowing natural beauty. With that said, a few of the favorite things we've eaten on our trip so far were actually in Norway.
The first favorite meal that I'll mention had more to do with the experience rather than the food itself, though the food was quite good -- carrot soup followed by boiled potatoes with saucy roast beef for me and excellent curried vegetables for Marcus. When Marcus and I went to Jotenheimen National Park to do the day-long Besseggen Ridge Hike, we stayed where everyone stays and what is pretty much the only option aside from wild camping. The Gjendesheim Turisthytte is the flagship lodge of the Norwegian hiking association. And while Norwegians are (in?)famously introverted, the lodge hosts a family-style dinner every night for all of the people who hiked the Besseggen Ridge that day. So, we got to sit, packed together, at 3 huge dining room tables with about 60 Norwegians and share hiking stories and delicious food. Definitely my favorite night until we got the bill. ;-) But it was worth it.
- Avoid it even if you're desperate: fish gratin
- Eat it even when you're not desperate (M's opinion; I did not try): Mr. Lee's Instant Noodles with mock chicken (found in every convenience store)
- Try it but don't expect to like it: Norwegian brown cheese
- Try it but don't expect to be wowed by it: Norwegian white cheese
- After you've tried those, be thankful for widespread availability of: Jarlsburg
- Lille Saigon 1 - not only one of the best cheap eats in Oslo, but our best eat in general. Excellent Vietnamese vermicelli. And they make this orange-lime-mint-iced-tea that was just like what we'd stumbled on in Chelsea Market in NYC once, unknowingly, and could never figure out how to reproduce. Both times now, I simply ordered iced tea and found myself drinking something magical that is not just a matter of sticking oranges, lime, and mint into iced tea. But this time, I found a recipe. I'm definitely learning to make this when I get home
- Egget Kafe - not super cheap, but not super expensive. A lovely neighborhood place that reminded us a lot of some of our favorite places in Brooklyn. We kept coming back to order their "spinach lasagna," which was effectively a rectangular spanikopita that came with a side of sliced bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and roasted potatoes, and a scoop of "crazy feta"... a spiced feta spread, like what you get at a Cava fastfood restaurant in the US. (You'll notice as this post continues that I am generally in heaven anytime I eat any variation on a Greek salad)
- Bergen Fish Market - super fun to walk around; super expensive to eat anything. But you'll see the biggest fish you've ever seen, as well as whale products :-( and some sausages made from moose and deer. Feels like a Christmas market
- A favorite eat: quiche made with homemade crust, a layer of pesto at the bottom, shredded carrots and leeks, topped with some sort of cheese and served with sour cream
* Marcus read that Norwegians consume some of the most pizza per capita of any country in the world (and I did not fact check this before publishing it here, so be warned).
* We also learned that, at one point, the Norwegian salmon industry was in trouble and so they went to Japan and started getting the Japanese to make sushi with salmon for the first time. Fun fact for the next time you eat a salmon-avocado roll.
My mouth is watering thinking about Spain again. We ate really well for pretty cheap there. Tapas, of course, are the thing. But a tricky part of traveling, I think, is not to end up at a "traditional __ place" for every meal. You'll eat the exact same food over and over again, which will make you not like it. I'm not sure we've successfully figured out how to do it, but it's nicer to find places to eat that have different interpretations, contemporary versions, cross-culture fusions, etc. That way, you're still on theme but not eating the same fried cod and green olives every time you go out for tapas.
After freezing in a tent for most of our time in Norway, I thought we'd need more social interaction and so decided to stay in a hostel in Barcelona. Hostels are a hell of a lot more expensive than they were 15 years ago, by the way. They're really just as expensive as budget motels now, and if you're a pair of 2 people, they're likely more expensive, since you're paying per bed. Although, hotels of all types were very expensive in Barcelona -- not on par with the affordable food, at all. We just didn't want to AirBnB this time, as we'd also booked too late to find a reasonable AIrBnB. I'll write a post on lodging later, but getting towards the point here, we ended up at one of what seems to be the new version of hostel in Europe -- sort of a dorm-based W hotel. Very stylish, with lots of amenities but inevitably a bathroom that gives you athlete's foot and enough noise from dorm-mates coming and going that you never get to sleep through the night. Otherwise, Casa Gracia was pretty great and was our homebase for good food in Spain for a week.
We got to start each day with a great hostel breakfast: tea, coffee, orange juice, fresh bread, croissants, donuts, cinnamon buns, scrambled eggs, spanish potato omelets, ham, cheese, pears, bananas, yogurt, cereal... One afternoon, we landed ourselves at the hostel restaurant for their pre-fixe dinner. A cold pumpkin coconut cream soup with parsley, beef carpaccio with tomatoes and onions, a grilled sweet potato, and fruit for dessert. But most late nights, we ended up there for their tapas menu. They served several delicious and non-standard tapas that I can't quite remember now, but we ordered their burrata at least 4 times during the week. Burrata on an heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers and onions and balsamic vinegar. Somedays there were some olives in there. Somedays a few bell peppers. Somedays, some croutons. Always delicious. And everytime we sat down there, we got 2 glasses of cava. Hard not to at €2 per glass.
Speaking of alcohol, while I drank as much cava as I could get my hands on in Barcelona, plus a bit of sangria, Marcus became enamored with vermouth. It's not a matter of drinking vermouth straight from the bottle. Rather, they water it down and spice it and serve it chilled, which makes it very refreshing and drinkable.
While in Spain, we also took the opportunity to get to some Mexican restaurants. Our diet at home consists of Mexican food about 2-3 times per week, and we made sure to have Mexican the night before we left on our trip. It'll also be the first thing we eat when we get home. But there are some Mexican restaurants in Spain these days, and so we were able to squeeze in a burrito or two. Nothing to write home about, but it satisfied our needs.
Not to worry, we also got in some paella and more fried shellfish than I could really stomach. But the funnest time we had was wandering Barcelona's big food market, La Boqueria. Basically every major urban food market in Europe is a must-do in my opinion now. I didn't know that prior to this trip. Many stands sell fruit juices of a wide variety and combinations for €1, but they'll also sell you a paper funnel full of fresh cherries and coconut and watermelon rinds to walk the market with. Stuffed olives are available, and while Marcus's favorite thing in every city we've been to on this trip so far has been sardines -- as many sardines as he can find -- I like my olives stuffed with manchego. I will take as much manchego as I can find.
Another night when we were seeking a break from Spanish food, we opted for Italian at a place called Macchina Pasta Bar and, for €9, had the best plate of pasta I've had since we lived in NYC, plus a giant Greek salad and tiramisu. Which we then followed up with a chocolate covered churro at one of Barcelona's many churrerias.
One night in Madrid allowed us sufficient time to spend an evening at their central food market, Mercado de San Miguel. We thought it'd be the same as Barcelona, but it wasn't. La Boqueria was gritty, a bit smelly and dirty, and packed with locals. Which was fun, of course. Mercado de San Miguel was more upscale, cleaner, and more heavily packed with tourists. The food was better, too. Carefully spiced sangria. Oysters. A cheese bar where you can pick out the items for your cheese plate. A whole mozzarella stand with incredibly delicious burrata on toast with figs or tomatoes or sardines. Stuffed olives, of course.
The first thing we did in Lisbon was make our way to their central food market, which surely had a name before it was renovated and rebranded as Time Out Market. This was the fanciest urban food market we'd been to yet, and it was fully overrun with tourists. One thing I liked about it was that there was no duplication. They have a row of stalls dedicated to their celebrity chefs and the rest is one place for cheese, one place for sardines, one place for olives, one place for wine, etc. etc. But it was not cheap, like the rest of Portugal.
While we'd been collecting cans of sardines for Marcus throughout our trip, airport security took all of our cans of sardines from our carryon luggage when we flew into Spain, and so we had to start over. Portugal prides itself on its sardines, and Marcus was very happy to stock up again at the market.
Our favorite eats in Portugal were split between Lisbon's urban food market and a favorite restaurant we found in the beach town of Cascais. Additional notes:
- A favorite eat: lentils with fresh arugula, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and radish
- A favorite eat: salmon tataki over glass noodles with sweet chili sauce and sesame seeds
- A favorite eat: roasted carrots glazed with honey and coriander
- Nós é Mais Bolos - they have a pie made with a merengue crust, a thin layer of chocolate mousse at the bottom and then some sort of whipped cream filled with berries. It's amazing
- Moules & Gin - we loved this place in Cascais so much that we went twice. Just moules frites and gin & tonics, except done to perfection. We kept it simple with their mussels in champagne sauce, and their gin & tonics with berries. It never occurred to me that gin & tonic was anything more than a well drink, but these were something special
- Red wine: Casa da Passarella, O Oenologo, Vinhas Velhas
- Vinho verde: Anselmo Mendes, Alvarinho Contacto, Vinho Verde
- Vinho verde rosé - Casal Garcia, Vinho Verde Rosé
The first thing I ate in Morocco was both the best thing I ate in Morocco and the most new-to-me thing I'd eaten on the trip so far: Pastilla Marocaine au Poulet, Amandes, et Miel. This pastilla is made with shredded chicken and layered with sliced almonds and honey inside a thin pastry shell -- roughly a 6" diameter disc that's about 3/4" thick -- and sprinkled with a little bit of powdered sugar and criss-crossed with cinnamon. Super delicious and unusual to me. I've been dreaming up a vegetarian version with sweet potato, carrot, or butternut squash.
We also had nice and simple breakfasts at our riads each morning and got our fill of Moroccan salads -- usually presented as a huge array of roasted eggplants, carrots, beets, etc. Plus some tomatoes, cucumber, and olives. It should be noted, as well, that Marcus had perhaps his favorite sardines yet -- grilled whole sardines with a veggie kabob and french fries. Seeking out at least a bite of deeper African flavor, we found a restaurant called Mama Afrika and ordered their veggies-and-rice option. What we got was more than we could have guessed -- bell peppers, eggplant, potatoes, onion, pineapple, and fried cheese in a sweet-and-sour sauce atop crispy rice. Almost tasted like Chinese food, actually, but with healthier vegetables. :) Super yummy.
Alas, somewhere in what I thought was rather modest food testing, I contracted dysentery and ended our trip to Morocco in misery. I'm hoping for a full recovery in time to enjoy a full range of Sri Lankan curries next!