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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, #3) I have a Dream

wall of wishes at buddhist temple in japan

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile

Even though my reality is not dark at all, these lines from that old song “I have a Dream” by Abba have been following me ever since my latest return from beautiful Japan. Because already on the plane back home a dream started to form and slowly but surely take over my entire mind, the entire time.

I am dreaming of my dream trip: All I need to realize it will be an open end ticket to Tokyo, a Japan Rail Pass that will get me  on all rides of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen (and any non high speed trains thereafter, of course) and a wallet that allows me to reside in a different Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel with baths, and usually such provided by natural hot springs) every single night. Crazy? No, it’s a dream, and a wonderful one for that matter.

shinkansen, more plane than train

ryokan, bed ready

kaiseki are high end meals consisting of many little plates

The open end ticket to Tokyo does not have to be discussed here. Any one can get it (depending on their amount of money, patience, set or not set travel dates, individual expectations, etc. Getting an open end ticket to Tokyo is not a spectacular undertaking.)

kissing shin

The Hokuriku Shinkansen, though, is a different story. It debuted on March 14, 2015, and runs from Tokyo through mountains of 3,000 meters (9’000 feet), various rural and still very traditional areas, along the Japan Sea to the city of Kanazawa. Roughly spoken, it turns north west from Tokyo and from there in a flat semi circle westbound down again to Kanazawa. It takes travelers through the gorgeous prefectures of Tokyo, Saitama, Gunma, Nagano, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Gifu, Niigata and Shiga, showing them the slight differences between each.  No wonder it’s called the “Golden Route”: The stops happen at places famous for their (sea)food, gorgeous landscapes and/or various arts and crafts.

sun dawn at the japan sea

rural hokuriku with cut rice fields

Not just because of its maximum speed of 320 km (200 miles) per hour, the Shinkansen is state of the art. On the super cool outside, reminding of an airplane more than a train, a copper colored line on the bright white wagons represents the traditional copper crafts the Hokuriku region is famous for, and the blue one stands for the sky along the railway line. Together they express the fusion of traditional and futuristic, or the future of “wa”- “something Japanese oriented”.

There’s three class levels on this bullet train, featuring new technologies like car vibration detectors, but also automated reclining seats, individual power outlets for every single passenger, etc. The Japan Rail Pass that grants one seats in those luxurious trains functions like a credit card, and gets automatically reloaded when falling under a certain amount. It can not only be used to buy tickets but also to pay for food in train stations – the glorious food of train stations, but more about this later – and the ubiquitous and fascinating vending machines. Just make sure not to get distracted by the vast selection of hot and cold beverages these little refreshment centers offer: The Shinkansen is more accurate than a Swiss watch, and never departs even a second too late. You better be there and ready.

IMG_6066 IMG_6067 IMG_6070

So what about that train station food? Well, it is unlike any other you ever have experienced. Prepared food, yes, but fresh, of local ingredients, in accordance with the seasons and regional traditions. Dislocating from one station to the next, and eat at each single one, a person can discover the local specialties, see what raw goods have their roots in this specific area and surely will enjoy a different and delicious meal at every single place. Brochures of train stations and their foods can be found at each info booth, and people spend a lot of time to pick very consciously which Bento Box (Lunch Box) or single item they will pick once they arrive at their station. The displays of the various kiosks and stores are beautiful and artistic, and clearly based on craftsmanship and pride.

the food selection display at the train station in takasaki

rice cakes, simple and gorgeous

Speaking of stations: The new Hokuriku Shinkansen made big waves even before it started to run. Companies close to Shinkansen stations remodeled their buildings and offices or added museums, and some of those that originally weren’t close to a station moved their quarters in its vicinity. Of course the towns that got blessed with a stop of the bullet train undertook everything possible to impress the travelers (and make them stay). The result are ultra modern, über clean, attractive and interesting train stations. Pretty cool.

one of over 136 exhibits of regional crafts

brand new train station of shinkansen in kawazana, modern meets old

another craft demonstration at the train station in kawazana,

And then, on my dream trip, there will be the Ryokans. Total bliss: Traditional Japanese inns that, for logical reasons, nowadays exist in rural regions much more often than in big cities. When checking in to a Ryokan, be prepared for spacious rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats, futons, and, oh, those fabulous baths – from hot springs, if you picked your place wisely. But even if not, and the bath is prepared with regular water: It still is pretty awesome to be able to take a revitalizing swim at 5 in the morning. Or a calming one just after midnight when you lay on your futon jet lagged and restless. Most all Ryokans give much pride in the food they serve. Incredible breakfasts and dinners consisting of what seems like a little bit of everything. Small portions, meticulous presentation, cleanest, most balanced food, and every single one comes with its own purpose. Pure, divine delight.

sashimi course at kaiseki dinner

perfectly balanced little composition of fish, vegetables and pickles

By now I hope you are able to read my dream: Traveling on a shiny Shinkansen by day, being able to take in the changing landscape while relaxing, but also to do some reading or even checking e-amils, stop for lunch breaks in gorgeous train stations, and finally crash in a Ryokan. Which translates as: Getting welcomed in a more personal and friendly way than in any other hotel. Maybe have tea in the lobby for a start. Then slip out of your shoes in the hallway of your room (which often resembles a suite more than a regular room), drop off the bags and enjoy the freeing feeling. Go enjoy a bath, a long, hot bath. Back to your room, into the Yukata (robe that is suited to be worn publicly), and off to dinner. A lavish dinner, yes, but one that never makes you feel guilty. Then another bath. At least one.

the rooms of ryokans are spacious and feature tatami, futon and sliding doors

slippers to wear in the ryokan room

private onsen in ryokan

But back to those dinners at the Ryokan. What dinners. Kaiseki is their name, and wherever you are and whatever you accept to eat (or not), you will be presented with a long, long, gorgeous series of artful little compositions. There will be fish and snails and seafood in the raw as well as cooked; seasonal vegetables and fruits in the form of pickles, pastes, salads, stews and soups; meats from very lean to very fatty, with or without bone, from totally uncooked to stewed over night. Tea, water, sake, beer. Tofu, often. Rice, always. Miso or some broth based soup always, as well. Lots of beans, usually in transformed ways. Lots of mushrooms, usually just very clean and plain, as they appear in nature. Everything served in tiny portions. The spices are bold yet subtle, the flavors deep yet always balanced. – In other words: The perfect cuisine.

sashimi

mushroom course at kaiseki dinner

squid course

So let’s wrap it up: Luxurious and most efficient way of traveling (Shinkansen), combined with experiencing very populous food throughout the day (Bento and train station food) and then getting the treatment of the spoiled at night (Ryokan, Kaiseki and baths), and repeating this day after day, equals: Best way to explore Japan!

It’s a dream.

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile…

(Photograph #6 and #25, the one of the four Shinkansen facing each other, and the second to last one, the Hokuriku Shinkansen rolling into a station, are courtesy of Keisuke Yamamoto.)

hokuriku shinkansen

artistic presentation of the kaiseki dinner

 

Past Supper #14 – Vol-au-Vent

puff pastry cups filled with bok chou, pepper, chicken

Puff pastry cups filled with bok chou, red pepper, sweet peas, onion, garlic and chicken. Creamy white wine sauce. Rice. – Simple and soothing.

Fifty Shades of Green

tomatillos and herbsThere’s days when things just align, every detail simply falls into its ideal place and the ending is nothing but perfect. – Days like the one when I stepped into my favorite hispanic food shop, because I was in the need of some specific cuts of meat (that I can’t steadily find in other stores). On my way to the butcher department, between narrow aisles,  I – literally – ran into an enormous basket full of tomatillos. They were green and gorgeous, bright and bold, tart and tasty looking. Irresistible.

While filling a brown paper bag with my favorite rounds, feeling the husks and taking in all the colors, the vision of my next lunch dawned. Just like that. And promising it was! So by the time I had paid and left the store, it was clear that the next stop wasn’t home, but rather the Italian market. Which suddenly appeared to me like a Fata Morgana to a drenched, starving person: I couldn’t get there fast enough.

husked tomatillos

I am not quite sure what to call the sandwich I came up with. Maybe The Multi Cultural. Or Multi Culti. Opposites. Or Harmony.

sandwich, done, with salsa

The name doesn’t really matter, though. More important is the idea this sandwich was built on: The target was to create a flavorful, complex, perfect marriage by combining a fresh, tangy, tart Tomatillo-Salsa – one with a twist, that is – with the sweet richness of a Prosciutto di Parma and the slightly acidic creaminess of a Mozzarella di Bufala. It totally did its job. Not only the flavors, also the textures – although contrasting each other when looked at individually – blended into a tasty, satisfying unity.

tomatillo salsa, jarred

Continue reading “Fifty Shades of Green” »

The World According to Caroline

cheese and chocolate

  • I  eat cheese and chocolate every day. Good cheese and good chocolate.
  • Each time I imagine my last meal, it is different.
  • If there was a perfume created just for me, it would have the scent of tomato plants.
  • If you don’t like duck, I don’t like you!
  • I can’t stand people when they chew gum. Even people I usually like and respect.
  • Food – choosing, preparing and eating it – is an extremely sensual process. Presented in a certain way, each food can become an aphrodisiac.
  • Cooked, I prefer crustaceans over fish. Raw, they come in tied (and on top of my list).
  • My favorite food cities are Tokyo and San Sebastián. In no order.
  • I am not a milk drinker.
  • Texture to me is as important as the flavor of foods.
  • All foods that can be consumed without chewing them, seem like no food to me. I am fine with yogurt but it does not nourish me (or my soul?). Same with soup. I need a hunk of cheese and a loaf of bread with it to make me feel full and happy.

red and white wine bottles

  • There is one exception in regard of liquid foods: I look at wine as food. The only liquid food that does satisfy me. And one very dear food to me, without a doubt.
  • I am not a sweet person. My cravings are salty.
  • I like dramatic changes when it comes to food. A simple stew is not better or worse than a froufrou seven course meal with elaborate emulsions and fancy foams. It’s all about mixing it up, involving all senses, going extreme, staying clean and being open to anything. Over and over again.
  • I love every thing and every one in and from Spain. (And for once, this is not only food related.)
  • I can not decide if I like Fondue or Raclette better. Fondue to me tastes and smells better. Yet Raclette can be enjoyed over an extended period of time. I like that.
  • The best days are the ones when my husband tells me during breakfast what he will be cooking that night.

eggs, some cooked, some raw