Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hearty Food for Mountain People

Hiking beneath La Ripasa near Panticosa, Spain
Dark was closing in, a gentle but persistent rain had soaked through my top layer, and the lights from the village were still distressingly far away.  It was hard to remember that we had started our day nearly ten hours earlier at an inn in that village over a breakfast of jamon, toast, and strong café con leche.  Since then we had tread 28 kilometers on rocks, road, scree, and snowpack; we had been pelted by hail and rain and caressed by the warmth of the shy sun; we had shared beers, coffee, and tales of the trail with fellow hikers seeking refuge from a passing storm. 

But at that moment, trying to make out the rooftops of Sallént de Gallego through a grove of threateningly dark trees, all I wanted was a hot shower, a dry towel, and the hearty mountain dinner that I knew was waiting at the end of the trail.

Half Grilled Rabbit with aioli
This past July, John and I spent eight days hiking in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Our journey was a self-guided loop around the Valle de Tena arranged through the outfitter Hike Pyrenees, a tour operator offering a variety of Spanish hiking trips both guided and independent, as we had chosen.  The idea of setting out each day with a detailed set of directions and map (in English) and needing to take along nothing more than our daypacks sounded like a dream opportunity to explore a mountain range that not many native English speakers get to.  At the end of each day, our suitcases would appear in the next village having been spirited there by car while we traversed by foot.

When planning this trip, in addition to the expectation of epic mountain vistas, I also harbored fantasies of pan con tomate for breakfast, leisurely vino soaked lunches and long dinners ending in a table littered with the leftovers of a tapas feast.  As it turned out, we would eat well and plenty, and tapas would occasionally be involved, but the mountain cuisine of Basque country was a far cry from the gambas ajillo, patatas bravas, and paella that many people think constitutes “Spanish cuisine”. 

As we hiked from idyllic village to idyllic village, we worked up an appetite.  Each morning we would eat our fill of fresh scrambled eggs, tostada con jamon (toasted bread with olive oil, crushed tomatoes, and cured ham), and fresh juice.  The proprietor of each inn would pack us a small lunch, usually a bocadillo stuffed with grilled chorizo or longaniza, or one layered with jamon, thin omelet, crushed tomato, and fresh lettuce from the owner’s garden.

When we stopped for lunch, sometimes it was in a rush, trying to eat in a breezy spot by the side of a river having found a place where the flies were not swarming and the mosquitoes might layoff of us for a minute. Other days we just powered through the hike, drinking our lunch in the form of an ice-cold cerveza, followed by a snack, and then the requisite siesta. 

But dinner in the Pyrenees was where the cuisine really shined.  In eight nights there was not a paella pan in sight.  The seafood was more bacalao (salt cod) than gambas.  And there was meat, well, in every form imaginable.  When it came to vegetables, the chefs did their best when the vegetable in question was a potato- and those were always best when fried.  In other words, this was hearty food for mountain people.   

In Sandiníes, a village of no more than a handful of old stone buildings, rests a non-descript structure called Casa Pelentos.  They have rooms, but you would be mistaken if you thought this was a hotel with a restaurant.  No, this is more a famous, under-the-radar beacon of Spanish regional cooking that happens to have a few rooms attached where you can spend the night.  We were happy to spend the night, as it gave us a chance to taste from the chef’s much-celebrated repertoire of Pirineos cuisine. 

Piquillo peppers stuffed with bacalao
 The energetic owner walked us through the menu nodding every few sentences until I nodded back indicating that I was following her rapid-fire, thickly accented Spanish.  In reality I only picked up a few words here and there but it was enough to point and order some of the dishes she enthusiastically recommended.  A starter of soup filled with chickpeas and morcilla sausage was robust and filling enough to be a meal on its own.  This followed with piquillo peppers stuffed with creamy bacalao that were none too attractive when smothered in a rich tomato sauce.  But the sweet peppers balanced well with the luscious salt cod filling.  John’s chilled asparagus soup was pure summer in its vibrant color while his lamb chops were juicy and grassy as if the lambs had been feeding off the same verdant fields through which we had been hiking.

Back in Sallénte we finally knocked on the door of the Hotel Almud at 8:30pm.  Maria, the owner, whisked away our soaking wet hiking shoes and backpacks to dry in her boiler room over night.  She even called the restaurant to push our reservation back, though assured us that our 9pm dinner time was still plenty early by Spanish standards.

Clean, warm, and dry, we limped our tired bodies 200 meters away and poured ourselves into chairs at Asador Casa Jaimico.  I don’t much remember ordering wine, but when a bottle of red magically appeared neither of us objected.  I will admit a tiny amount of shock at the enormity of my leg of lamb when it emerged from the kitchen a crusty oven crisped brown in a pool of its juices, but the size did not deter me from finishing the entire thing.

Leg of lamb at Asador Casa Jaimico
Nor did John have a problem polishing off a decadent starter of mushroom risotto with duck confit followed by half a grilled rabbit.  This was almost an obscene amount of meat between the two of us, yet we found ourselves picking at the bones for every last morsel.  It was easy to see after days of trudging up steep mountain slopes in sometimes dangerous conditions how this cuisine would evolve.  It was food as rugged and natural as the people who live there.

Eight days eating as they do in the Pyrenees was more than enough for two omnivores.  Our hard treks behind us and back in the modest sized village of Biescas for our last night, we did as many locals were doing that beautiful Sunday evening and went out to find a plate of vegetarian pesto pasta.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ode to Durango

At the base of Mt. Engineer
Oh Durango, why do I feel like singing and breaking out into a jaunty dance every time I think of you? 

I had actually never heard of you until early this year.  Maybe that is because you are tucked way down into the Southwest corner of Colorado, closer to Santa Fe than to Denver.  Yet perhaps it is that very remoteness that has kept your charm intact, years after the mining operations upon which your town was founded packed up and left.  Thank goodness our honeymoon Western road trip gave us the opportunity to pass your way.

About those mining town remnants.  That train running between Durango and Silverton- very cool, though I could do without the loud steam engine noise every half hour.  Clearly kids get a kick out of the horse drawn carriages running up and down Main Avenue, a rare street of bustling activity that actually lives up to its name.  And never have I stayed at a historic hotel like the Strater.  The petit rooms and antique décor is charmingly retro, making me think to a time of women wearing bustles and men sporting mustaches un-ironically.  But it manages the historical nod while providing service that is on par with any modern, first-class hotel- an impressive feat.

The Strater Hotel in Downtown Durango

Oh but you are more than walk back in time, Durango!  In fact, you do everything possible to inspire visitors to walk, run, hike, bike, and even kayak through the nature that surrounds you.  Hiking in the San Juan Mountains was filled with dramatic peaks (Mt. Engineer) and hidden enchanted bodies of water (the eerie cyan-colored Ice Lakes).  And when we chose to stay closer to town, running along the Animas River was a splendid opportunity to take in the city vistas on a 7-mile supremely well-maintained path shared with bikers, walkers, and disembarking kayakers.

One of the Ice Lakes near Durango, CO

For a place so remote, you are no country bumpkin.  In keeping with the grand Colorado tradition of beer making, you offer multiple destinations for sampling local suds.  Despite its ubiquity, we weren’t crazy about Ska Brewing, but loved the opportunity to sip through a variety of beers as part of a sampler at the Brew Pub. 

Homemade pastries at Jean-Pierre Bakery on Main Ave.
Dining selections are just as impressive and varied as the beer.  Dinner at Seasons, where we ate a salad with arugula, cherries, and delicious cheese from local producer James Ranch and chicken saltimbocca with house-smoked bacon, was on par with any big city farm-to-table restaurant.  And just when we started feeling a little overwhelmed with Americana, we needed only to take a walk to Himalayan Kitchen to get our fill of Nepali food including some delicious yak (local, Colorado-raised) momos.

Momos at Himalayan Kitchen

And if all that wasn't enough to inspire others to visit you, Durango, I have read you get 330 days of sunshine a year!  (Cue soggy Seattleites booking their next vacation.) 

Durango, you are the sort of town that makes me want to pen an imaginary letter of gratitude, so thankful am I that treasures like you still exist in America, just waiting to be discovered.  That is just the sort of happiness filled town you are- the singing, dancing, eating, hiking, merry-making kind of place.  Cue the music. Duran-gooooooh!

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You Can’t Afford Not to Travel Here

Cape Dutch homes in the winter vineyards, Franschhoek
It is about as far away as you can get from the United States and the plane ticket will definitely cost more than a flight to Paris.  But trust me, you cannot afford not to travel here. 

Which Southern Hemisphere paradise am I referring to?  It is a place where the wine flows freely, the green hills roll into impressively towering mountains, three course meals for two people can be enjoyed for less than your average New York dry cleaning bill; where do-gooders will rescue you from flat tires and where a wine shop owner might open the store on his day off just because you emailed.

This is South Africa. 

Namaqualand's spring flowers in full bloom
While images of exclusive $2000 per couple per night safaris are not wrong, that is certainly not the only way to travel here.  Safaris, for instance, can also be done rather cheap.  Rent a car and drive to the parks and you are saving money already.  Better yet, rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a pop-up tent on the roof and you will be ready to spend the night in one of hundreds of campgrounds around the country most of which come with water hook ups, lights, and communal hot-water shower facilities.

Not in to camping? No problem.  South Africans have mastered a type of lodging that you really don’t see much in the United States.  Most often these cottages, semi-permanent tents, or homes are listed as “self-catering”.  This means you will have a room, likely with all the amenities of a bed and breakfast or hotel, but you are on your own for dinner.  And they’ll even give you a fully equipped kitchen and braai (barbecue as they call it in those parts) to cook up something delicious.

John with our Toyota Hilux 4x4 and the pop-up roof tent
We stayed in a few of these types of lodging on a recent trip through South Africa and Namibia and we passed by many more that we would have been very happy to spend a night in.  A stone cottage at Verbe Farm in Namaqualand was 8 kilometers off the main highway and about 100 years away from our normal lives.  The charming owners had converted the ruins of a stone shepherd’s hut into a cozy retreat.  The lack of electricity only added to the charm- oil lamps and candles filled every room providing more than enough light.  Meanwhile John lit a fire on our indoor braai that served the dual purpose of heating up the stone walls on that chilly winter night and cooking our dinner, a fine curried pork loin. It was a night like none other and for that privilege we paid the nominal fee of $60. 

Kalahari Tented Camp
Most first-timers to South Africa will go the luxury safari route.  There is much to love about this type of travel- great food, experienced guides, 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets.  You don’t have to worry about much at these posh camps save for what time you’d like to take a nap and what you will drink for your sundowner (evening cocktail).  For those looking for a step up from camping but not wanting to dish out the big money, South Africa’s park service offers some wonderful accommodation inside the best parks from Kruger to Kgalagadi.  On our recent trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the red sand Kalahari Desert, we laid down $113 for one night at the Kalahari Tented Camp, an unfenced compound of a dozen semi-permanent structures.  Each tent had running water, a hot shower, comfortable beds, and a kitchen complete with a full-sized refrigerator.  We had prime seats for watching springbok, oryx, wildebeest, and jackals feed at the watering hole.  And after the sun went down, the roars of the lions and cackling hyenas walking through camp serenaded us with an African symphony.

Snoek cake at Cafe BonBon
Lunch at Cafe BonBon

Franschhoek, a verdant valley surrounded on three sides by towering mountains, has sometimes been compared to Napa in the Alps. This almost under-sells it.  Picture the least pretentious, most charming parts of Napa and Sonoma then put that in Lauterbrunnen, up-valley from Interlaken, nestled against the mountains, and you have the right idea.

We borrowed a house from friends for our four-night stay.  But many of the places we visited from the deservedly famous La Petite Ferme to the cozy Café BonBon at La Petite Dauphine, housed small cottages on the properties interspersed between grape vines. Though there are plenty of luxury accommodations in the area, the self-catering idea works very well in Franschhoek as the main meals of the day are inverted by our Western standards.  In addition to a few rooms, most wineries also have restaurants those the restaurants almost exclusively serve only lunch (some do dinner on Friday and Saturday).  Therefore a big mid-day meal followed by some wine tasting almost certainly leads to an evening nap at which point cooking a light dinner for yourself in the privacy of your pearly-white Cape Dutch cottage is the perfect way to wrap up an indulgent day. 

La Petite Ferme: a must-stop for lunch
Lamb at La Petite Ferme
I would be remiss to not mention the quality of the food here.  Franschhoek, less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is in the midst of some of the most fertile soil in Southern Africa.  Their prime location gives chefs here access to fish and seafood from the Western Cape and free-range meat and game from the Northern Cape.  A recent lunch at Café BonBon with two courses each, two bottles of sparkling water and a cappuccino came to $32.  Our food- an elegant watercress soup, crispy snoek cake over an Asian noodle salad, homemade gnocchi, and chicken curry- was as refined as anything you would find in a great British gastropub or West Village bistro. 

Tasting with Jeremy, Sales Director at Chamonix
Even the wine is shockingly inexpensive.  $3 for a glass of wine, a price you could not find so low on most US happy hour menus, is standard here for winery restaurants.  And if you are going big for dinner, say with a meal at the popular Reuben’s in town, you have to try hard to spend more than $50 for a bottle.  But do, because your $50 will go a lot further here than nearly any other wine-centric city in the world.

With Pieter, owner of Verbe Farm in Namaqualand
The final reason why you should visit South Africa is because their citizens really want you to.  Time and time again we were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers when we needed help (flat tires, lost keys), the generous spirit (the owner of the wine shop La Cotte Inn who opened up just for us on a Sunday), and the enthusiasm to share their special part of the world with us, from the Kalahari to Franschhoek.  Of course, we visited just a small selection of this vast country.  There is much more to explore.  And I for one know we will be back.  We can’t afford not to.

Where to Stay

Verbe Farm, Namaqualand
Contact: Pieter and Verencia

Kalahari Tented Camp, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Also see www.sanparks.org for other accommodations and camping reservations within the South African park system.

Chamonix, Franschhoek
Self-catering and traditional lodge accommodations. Restaurant on-site, lunch weekdays, dinner on Friday and Saturday. Some of the best wines in the valley available for tasting during the day.

La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek
Self-catering and traditional suite and lodge accommodation. One of the best restaurants in Franschhoek, lunch only.

Where to Eat
Cafe BonBon at La Petite Dauphine, Franschhoek
Breakfast and lunch daily.  Dinner on Friday and Saturday.  Some luxury suites on-site as well.

Reuben's, Franschhoek

Where to Shop
La Cotte Inn, Franschhoek

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Seafood Feast Worth the Journey

Cooking on the open fire, Muisbosskerm
How far would you travel for a special restaurant?   Muisbosskerm, an open-air restaurant on the Western coast of South Africa, is a about as hard to get to as it is to spell.  A direct trip from New York requires nearly forty hours in transit including three planes and a three-hour drive once landing in Cape Town.  In this food lover’s opinion, the journey is worth it because there is simply no restaurant like it in the world. 

Most of the Western coast of South Africa is sparsely populated, and the fishing village of Lambert’s Bay is no exception- a few guesthouses and a discount market clustered near the end of a gravel road.  It is a wonder then that Muisbosskerm, a couple of kilometers south of town, has thrived for the last 28 years, now attracting more guests (including more foreigners) than ever before. 

We pulled into the parking lot as the sun was setting, an early 6:30pm on our recent winter visit.  Mud walls were the only real structure, enclosing about four-fifths of the interior, leaving enough space to walk out to the ocean and catch the fading light over a Windhoek lager.  Looking up there was no roof, just the first stars.  This is because all the food we would be eating from grilled fish, to simmered stews, to bread, would be cooked over the open fire.  

Going back for seconds on snoek liver
The owner, a large, friendly Afrikaner, told us to pace ourselves, that the food would be served communally- we could eat as much as we wanted but there would be a lot of food coming out over the course of several hours.  Keeping that in mind I held back as the first arrival, a large platter of steamed mussels with a cast iron skillet of melted butter and garlic, was set down on a high table.  A few of the thirty or so other guests clustered around the pan leaving their mussels shells in a bowl to the side.  These shells would be cleaned and later reappear as “spoons” for scooping paella and stew.

We finally went in for a solid first course when the lady working with a large pot of oil placed a tray of two types of fried fish next to the mussels.  The texture was a dense on one and the taste a bit metallic and rich on the other- we loved both.  Later the owner would tell us those were the roe sack and liver of snoek, an abundant local fish.  We filed that under “Things We Are Glad We Didn’t Know Before” and went back for a second helping.

As the evening progressed over a bottle of wine, we saw two types of smoked fish and four kinds of whole, grilled fish including Angelfish, Kabeljou, and the body of the Snoek.  The paella came off the fire bursting with crawfish, mussels, and squid.  A few more fried pieces appeared, this time of the actual meat of the fish.  There were salads (a bit beside the point), fried potatoes, and bread still steaming from the oven (very much on point). 

For an extra 40 rand per person (about $4) we each had a half of a large crawfish, grilled and painted with butter.  It was sweeter and more tender than most lobster I have had.  This was our kind of dessert.  Though a couple of stews appeared and coffee served, we could not fathom another bite. 

On the surface, it is hard to believe that people would travel so far for a restaurant with no roof, where plates are made of Styrofoam, paper towels work as napkins, and the only utensil available is a mussel shell.  As we warmed our hands by the fire, listening to the crashing of the waves and staring up at the Southern constellations I could not think of another restaurant with this unique combination of atmosphere and wonderful, abundant, local food.   For a restaurant unlike any other, the journey is always worth it.  


Lambert’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa

Make reservations far in advance.  The restaurant only opens when they have at least 15 people on the books.  Check in two weeks before your visit to confirm they will be open.  Dinner only except on Sundays when they do lunch.
Note: Dress warm in winter and it doesn’t hurt to bring a blanket.

Where to stay:
The owner’s brother has a campsite across the street from the restaurant (about 200 rand for the night with showers).  There are several guesthouses in Lambert’s Bay.  For those looking for more luxury, the Clanwilliam Hotel in the charming village of Clanwilliam is a 40 minute drive. 

About US$20 per person, $4 extra for the crawfish when in season.  Drinks are paid for separately.  Beer and wine available but BYO is also okay.  CASH ONLY (South African rand)