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Portugese Patterns

portuguese tiles

ceramic tile

Portugal has been one of those few European countries to which for some reason both my husband and myself never had been to. We had often been very close by, in Spain, we had seen pictures, heard recounts and read articles though. According to them, every pore and place of this history laden little country sounded fantastic, and a few weeks back we finally decided to go see for ourselves and travel to Portugal.

What a great decision this was! Even though our expectations were high, we did not get disappointed in any way. The cities are charmful and pictuesque, full of art and beauty stories, the villages and landscapes ever changing, rural and genuine. There’s colors and gardens and architectural styles, orchards and green spaces and traditions. The people act calm, friendly and helpful towards strangers, and seem like a happy and serene bunch between themselves.

pulpo

vineyards in the duoro

And the food, oh the glorious food, is an entire story on its own. Portugese food is down to earth and does, what food first and foremost used to be and (at least there, how refreshing to witness) still is intended to do: It nourishes. Both the body and the soul, and abundantly so. There is little Froufrou in Portugese food, and much honesty. Animals and plants are used in their entiety. So one will get served pig ears instead of just the loin, turnip greens instead of just turnip, or tiny, whole fishes, eyes, fins and all. Continue reading “Portugese Patterns” »

(Homage to Japan, #4) Signed Up

japanese sign to protect peoples head

When I traveled in Japan for the first time, 25 years ago, I was impressed – and annoyed – by the many, many signs I didn’t understand. I kept on wondering what it would take to learn this obviously very complex language, and realized how intensely I dislike to be dependent.

instruction sign for purification before entering temple

instructions on how to work in fishing restaurant

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Swiss Kiss #9 – This Is My Land (or: Another Way To Give Thanks)

meat store in biel

Be alerted: You barely will find any food in this post. – Instead, there will be places and sights, details and beauty. I took all these pictures during my last trip to Switzerland, during the (too short) time I stayed in and around the small town of Biel-Bienne, the area I had grown up in. Which is the so called “lake land” in the western part of the country, 20 miles west of its capital, Bern. I had done all my schools there, fallen in love for the first time, gotten a job – and so much more.

Walking around town, seeing as many changes as familiar spaces, I realized that the longer I am away from “my land”, the more I appreciate and get attached to it. There definitely is a gipsy within me, but there also is this deep connection to the little things I used to live around and that have influenced me.

view from above biel

So today I am giving thanks to the places that bring back memories and emotions, that mean much to me without being pompous, and that remind me of the folks who brought light, laughter and love into my life. And I want to give thanks to you, my friends in food, by the way of sharing those little moments of serenity and happiness. Who would have thought that sometimes they happen without involving food? (But just sometimes.) – Happy Thanksgiving!

apartment with attached tower in switzerland, medieval

Tower from the 13th century in the old core of Biel. It was transformed into cozy and, happily, very affordable apartments.

fountain built in the middle age

Most old towns have their fountains, and there are many that are more famous than this one. Still it is my favorite one, not just in Biel. And it is full of history and stories. Continue reading “Swiss Kiss #9 – This Is My Land (or: Another Way To Give Thanks)” »

Pictures at a Fridge #3 – Gent, Belgium

Bonthuys restaurant, now closed

It’s the time of the year again, when I almost magnetically get attracted by this small, grey piece of firm paper (that is pinned onto a postcard of even more grey, plus one bright colored orange, in order not to get lost on the big, wild Fridge). April, in my former life – in Europe, traveling and working as a journalist – used to be the month I mostly spent in Belgium. A little bit of France, a little time in the Netherands would sometimes mix in, but mainly I stayed in Belgium. Beloved April!

I loved the shore, I loved the wide and flat (in the perspective of a Swiss girl, anyways) land. I loved the forests of fir, reminding me a specific region at home, the villages with their often über steep, climbing streets. I loved the dialects and for some reason the fact, that Europeans seemed to completely under estimate Belgium (maybe I felt this country should be left untouched). I loved the wind, the rain and sometimes the sun. But mostly, I loved the cities and towns. Gent – Gand in French -, I made to my very favorite darling.

This town is full of history, water, bridges, pavés (cobble stones), sharp turns, narrow streets, dark corners. There’s book stores, unique fashion, crazy shoes, brocantes (antique shops). There’s piazzas, cafés (coffee shops), pubs, and all kinds of restaurants. – And the Bonthuys. I stumbled upon this restaurant one night when I returned to my hotel late, tired and hungry. The windows of the building would not have revealed any action or even good food inside, and there was no sign anywhere. Yet it was the address the girl at the hotel had given me, when I had asked for a suggestion.

The restaurant is hard to describe. It was painted in a bold cobalt blue only a few folks probably would associate with food. Everything else was mis matched and mixed up in the most tasteful way. Wood tables, plain or painted, stood beside glass ones. The chairs looked like a collection that started in the époque of Louis XV and ended with what an upcoming talent had designed that same day. There was a lot of fur, real and fake, on walls, floor, chairs – “Bonthuys” means fur house and refers to the business that originally was located in there. Plates, silver ware and glasses, place mats (where there were any), lights and center pieces: Every object was one of its kind. So it made sense that the guests, upon their arrival, could choose their own table. Bonthuys – or “the blue restaurant” as we later would refer to it – was a wild, colorful, fierce and very, very well orchestrated circus.

And its food matched: The dishes always sounded crazy – and always tasted fabulous. I remember eating quail that was served in a nest (not pasta, real hay and grass). Or a seafood stew with vanilla. Some dishes, especially vegetable ones, were served family style – a big platter with some humungous serving tools, simply set and left in the middle of the table. It has been many years since my last, wonderful meal at Bonthuys. The restaurant has meanwhile closed. The memories though stay dear and strong. Especially in April.

Homage to Simplicity – and a Very Dear Friend

 

simple appetizerNow, that I officially have admitted my fascination with foods that have the ability to boss one around – and sometimes torture one, by implying rough schedules and nearly unacceptable sets of efforts -, I decided to confess my other side. My affair with the lovely, leisurely and somewhat lazy world of simplicity.

Some of you now might want to accuse me of a double life. Of cheating. Being bad. – But wait, let me explain. First, honestly, do you think I would ever, ever cheat on food? We are talking food, my friends! And when I think of simple foods, I see complexity. (So I do not lie to either of them!) Simple is not easy. Simple does not mean the same as easy. Simple is complex, without revealing it. Simple is complex while looking easy. – Just imagine that unforgettable moment, when you bit into this perfect piece of bread. It was divine. It was simple. But for the baker who had hand crafted the bread, it was not easy. It was complex. Same with well made cheese. Wine. Chocolate. And so on.

Most people, once they have visited and eaten in Italy, no matter what part of it, can’t stop raving about its cuisine. Well, guess what? One of the characteristics of all Italian regional dishes is their simplicity. They consist of only a few ingredients, yet the purest and quality wise best ones, assembled in just the right way. It sounds and looks easy. In reality, it is complex but not complicated. Simple. Simply simple.

ingredients for amuse bouche

While contemplating about dishes and recipes that reflect simplicity – eliminating such great players as a perfectly composed sashimi, the ultimate piece of beautifully marbled meat, cooked by the most talented man at the grill, or the best ever spaghetti, say, al pesto – I suddenly was stuck with that one Amuse Bouche* my dear friend Fabian Fuchs likes to serve at his “Krone” (crown) restaurant in Blatten, just outside of Luzern, Switzerland.

salami fabian, sbrinz

Salami, Marcona Almonds, Sbrinz, olives. That is it. Four ingredients. Cured ingredients, all of them, to which the Chef doesn’t do anything but serving them in separate bowls. Each of the four products, when you think about it, contributes its very own kind of fat (or deliciousness). And each of these fats is complemented or contrasted by another flavor profile: The meatiness and pepper of the dried sausage, the nutty, slightly smoky hints of the almond, the caramelly sweetness in the cheese, the subtly oily and green notes of the olives. Now add the textures: Chewy and dense for the meat, crunchy and creamy at once in the cheese, both mealy and smooth for the almond, soft and buttery in the olives. Sounds pretty complex, hm? Yet, this is perfect simplicity in a platter. – As a matter of fact, this dish is so simple that it never even has been named. The restaurant staff refers to it as “the little plate” or “quattro” (four, in Italian). A quartet that plays pure, beautiful harmony, indeed.

So complexity, which is demanding, and simplicity, which is trickier, are damn similar, after all. That’s why I love them both. (And the next post will be less philosophical, I promise. I love that, too.)

(*palate entertainer, literally translated, aka small nibbles served while the guests are waiting for their first course.)

salami, olives, cheese and almonds in jars

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