Tag: Food

Phase 5. Snowflakes shaped like stars and a dream that became reality.

Latvia, you may think, was probably a bit of an off-the-cuff idea.
“Oh, those two just want to add another country to their list,” you scoff. “Who even goes to Latvia?”

It’s true. Not many people visit this tiny Balkan country, occupied throughout history alternately by the Russians and Germans. It’s a culture that’s known for its herring salad and… well…. not much else really… so I guess it was a bit of a random sounding choice.

But you’re wrong about our motivations.

You see, my husband Tyson can be quite the strategist, and there was a bit of back and forth when it came time to decide how we would spend our last four days in Europe. It seemed too far to drive to visit more relatives. Should we finally check out East Germany instead? How about Finland’s beautiful winter paradise, Lapland (I’d always had a dream to go on a dog sled through the forest)? Too expensive and probably booked out by now. Georgia? Nah – that was too far off the beaten track for aunty Christel, who was going to be accompanying us.

Tyson’s main objective was to go somewhere with a high probability of snow. Thanks to global warming (?), it always seems to snow in Germany in January these days, not in December like it used to. Thus, it’s incredibly rare and unlikely that we should have a white Christmas. Tyson, having grown up in tropical Queensland, still turns into a little boy every time he sees snow, and I get excited when I walk outside wrapped up in 10 layers and the cold air lovingly slaps me in the face. So, it had to be somewhere cold, and somewhere with snow.

Looking up a list of the top five European winter destinations likely to have snow in early January and swiftly eliminating Tallin (too many party-goers), Helsinki (for reasons stated above, plus the fact that we’d been there before), St Petersburg and Moscow (because you need a visa to get to Russia), Riga was left the last city standing – and hey, why not try a bit of that good old herring salad?

And so it was – we flew from Zurich to Frankfurt and then onto Riga, arriving in the wee hours of the morning (2am) due to ice-fuelled delays. To add to our sleepy joy (!), our luggage was last to be loaded off the plane, and so we were also the last ones left standing in the taxi queue outside Riga’s tiny international airport.

As if God was trying to cheer us up, snowflakes shaped like beautiful, intricate stars began to fall as we stood outside waiting. Little did we know that they would be just a little taste of what was to come…

When we finally did get in a taxi, our proud Latvian driver decided that 2:30am was an appropriate time as any to give us a guided tour of his capital, proudly declaring that “our shops are open until 11pm, not like you Germans, who close everything early!” Clearly shopping was a big thing here. He also pointed out restaurants and no doubt interesting landmarks, most of which I couldn’t see through my foggy, dark window.

We arrived safe and sound in our Air BnB apartment, where our host Elina (who had to work at 10am the next day) was waiting patiently. After quick chats and explanations, she left us to discover her beautiful home, which had on one windowsill a pile of beanies and socks hand-knitted by her boyfriend’s grandma. “Handmade by Latvian grandmother,” a note said. “In case you don’t have souvenir yet.”

Boy was I happy to buy one of those beanies!

The temperatures throughout our stay in Riga dropped dramatically, to a low of -21 on the day we left. To our delight, the snow levels did the opposite – on one day it even continued snowing for a whole day and at times was so heavy that you couldn’t look straight ahead when you walked.

Despite the statistical analysis of snow probability and our resulting decision to visit Riga, we hadn’t done much research (again!) beyond where we would stay, and so were happy to have Christel’s previous visit’s experience (she’d been there in summer a few years ago) and our Air BnB host’s recommendations.

As it turns out, Riga is a magical place! Europe’s capital of art deco architechture, about 60% of the city is said to be built in this decorative style. The old town, with its majestic churches and cathedrals, is made up of small, cobbled streets of shops, galleries and cafes, many of which served soup for lunch as this was clearly a hearty and delicious way to warm up in the winter. Elegant, proud-looking women in fur coats meandered through the little Christmas market stalls that were scattered throughout the town squares, drinking hot apple cider, talking to each other in Russian and admiring all the other Latvian grandmothers’ handmade mittens and socks. In the huge indoor central market, dried herrings were stuffed into buckets like pens in a cup and ladies with grumpy faces sold rye bread so brown you wondered if they’d get a heart attack if they saw the white bread we ate in Australia.

The food and coffee of this unexpectedly varied little city surprised and impressed us, and the people we met – from the taxi driver to our Air BnB host to the elderly lady who gave us a private, guided tour of the city’s pharmacy museum were warm, genuine and not at all the staunch, hard-faced type you sometimes imagine when you think of (former Russian) eastern Europe.

And as if lovely people, good food, beautiful surroundings and great coffee weren’t enough, Latvia was to totally blow my mind when I discovered that we could go dog sledding just half an hour outside the city.

WHAT!!!

This was a dream I had had for many years, but never taken that seriously because I thought I had to go to Canada, Alaska or somewhere in the north of Finland to make it happen. When I made an enquiry with the tour company online, I tried not to get my hopes up as we were booking with only a few days’ notice.

Yet it must have been meant to be because my dream came true the very next day as I found myself sitting on a bus driving out to a forest on the outskirts of Riga. When we arrived, the dogs were already waiting for us eagerly, barking and wagging their tails. I’d been worried about the ethics of dog sledding for tourism (a lot of animals used in tourism are mistreated) but had done my research and upon seeing the dogs was even more satisfied that these were animals that loved the snow, loved to run and were healthy and happy. We were allowed to play with them for a while and, well, what can I say – it was love at first sight.

Somehow I ended up being the one to be the ‘musher’ at the back of the sled, in charge of steering and putting the breaks on the dogs if I needed to (in case you’re wondering, this “simple” manoever is done by jumping from the two narrow wooden planks at the back of the sled that you balance on onto the steel bar in the middle which clamps into the ground … This all sounded very technical to a dog sledding novice!) with Christel sitting in the front as my passenger. We had eight dogs in front of us and Tyson, with a sled to himself, only had four. Before we knew it, we were off, and the dogs, excited to be allowed to run, took off at full speed. As we came around the first corner, my feet detached from the wooden planks, but not in order to put the breaks on – somehow I had slipped and was suddenly hanging on for dear life as my legs raced behind the sled and my hands held on.

“This is it,” I thought. “My dog sledding adventure ends here.”

Knowing that Christel was not going to achieve a James Bond-style backflip onto the back of the sled if I let go and was more likely to disappear into the distance with no control of the eight adrenaline-driven huskies – and knowing that this may be the only time I would ever live this lifetime dream of mine, I managed to somehow do a few enormous running steps and land back on the wooden planks on the back of the sled.

Pfew! That was lucky.

The rest of the ride went by relatively smoothly, though Christel at times had to endure less than relaxing angles as the dogs scraped around the corners and one side of us went up onto the thicker snow. As we got into the forest and I was finally able to relax a little and take in the beauty around me, I cried a few tears of silent gratitude and excitement.

How lucky am I, I thought, to experience something as magical as this?

At the end of the 5km ride, our toes and hands were frozen numb and sore, but our hearts were glad and our faces were plastered with elated grins. Tyson had caught the whole thing (minus my almost-stack) on camera and managed to capture some amazing moments with the dogs after we got back to the car.

That night, though we spent a bit longer in the hot shower to defrost, the cold having seemingly crept into the innermost parts of our bodies after a day spent almost entirely outside in the -14 degree temperatures, we could not shake the immense joy we felt. 

What an amazing, amazing, amazing day.

My Father in Heaven, how good you are to me.

Phase 1: Cloudy mountain peaks and deer sausage.

When the weather is bad in Switzerland, people head to the mountains.

I mean, they do that anyway, but as it turns out, the bad weather makes such a trek even more worth it, because the higher you go, the better your chance of getting above the weather.

This was definitely the case during our visit to Lucerne – stop no. 1 on this year’s European Christmas adventure. Knowing that ahead of us were two weeks of intense family time, Tyson and I had booked an Air BnB for a couple of nights in this Swiss city, just over an hour away from Zurich airport. I’d come here 5 years earlier to attend the World Tourism Forum, and having celebrated a major academic success here, I was keen to show Tyson all the places I’d been.

After picking up our hire car (a Mercedes! What else would you drive on an autobahn?!) and having a rather overpriced plate of service-station Spaetzle (oh, Switzerland), we were welcomed by our Air BnB host Brigitte with a bottle of wine and by her husband, Bruno about 15 minutes later with two half-litre cans of beer (“I’m sorry, my wife forgot the most important thing – you need these after such a long trip.”)

Having not thought ahead a great deal (we were flat out for weeks before we left home), we hadn’t made any plans for our first day in Europe, nor had we remembered that European cities do not follow Sunday trading. As fate would have it, we thus ended up at the top of a 1,798m high mountain with a view over the incredible Swiss Alps, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Lauerz – Mount Rigi had been recommended to us by our host Brigitte not only because it was a great Sunday activity, but because we woke up that first Sunday morning to miserable, cloudy, grey winter weather.

“You will have blue sky up there,” she’d said, pointing up at the grey, hazy sky as if we could look through it to some magical sunny place above. Though I wasn’t sure I believed her, heading up the mountain and getting some fresh air seemed like a good idea after 24+ hours of travel.

And so, there we were, taking pictures of snow patches and the top side of the clouds, eating deer sausage (a local specialty, apparently) and drinking terrible coffee. Luckily, the negativity of the coffee and lack of alternative lunch options was far outweighed by the truthfulness of Brigitte’s weather predictions, and we were able to sit outside in the sun, breathe in the crisp winter air and enjoy the fact that we were on holidays – at last.

Twenty-four hours, a small Christmas market, a quick whisk around Lucerne and some Swiss cheese later, we were on our way to Munich to meet my sister Maren and our friend Sheridan for a few days in Germany’s pretty, proud, Bavarian capital.

Autobahn driving… wheeee!

 

Stories of a Stained Cookbook

It’s a memory thing for me, food. At least that’s what it’s become.

It didn’t start that way.

At university, I lived off packet Mi Goreng (2 minute noodles), microwaved baked potatoes and single serve frozen lasagna. Even though I’d grown up in a family of exceptional cooks, none of their skills seemed to have been genetically passed on.

In one of my more famous cooking disasters, a high school home economics class, I  used icing sugar instead of flour in my cupcake batter, resulting in a giant puddle of gooey sweetness not at all resembling the rest of the class’ fluffy, golden brown, take-home afternoon tea accompaniments. Not long after that, a friend and I baked melting moments in the oven that already had icing on them.

It seemed cooking was not for me.

At some point in early adulthood, Masterchef was introduced to the Australian television-watching public. My Kitchen Rules soon followed. Somehow, I got hooked. Watching cooking shows became an addiction. In fact, even when I went to live in Spain in 2012, I was watching the series online from my Madrid bedroom. And lo and behold, after a few years of this, some things started to sink in.

Instead of trying to make carbonara sauce by adding flour to milk (that failure experience made me cry), I started to see that with a few staples and good flavour combinations, a whole world of delicious food possibilities opened up to me. And some of these recipes didn’t even seem that difficult! I’m a visual learner, so when I watched someone cook something on TV that looked do-able, I’d try to replicate it.

At this point, some innate knowledge did start to appear between the cracks of my conglomeration of cooking catastrophes. I remembered how to make salad dressing – I’d helped mum with this hundreds of times. I knew how the layering worked in lasagne. I knew how to do certain things in the kitchen, just from having watched and helped prepare dinners growing up. So I practiced. I asked mum. I read recipes. I began to spend money on ingredients I couldn’t afford as a student.

Then I met Katja. Katja was really into cooking. I met her at my job in Madrid; she was a 26-year-old German who spoke 6 languages and knew how to make butter from scratch. Katja spent all her money on thick cookbooks and fancy Himalayan salts. She would bring food to work for us to try – cakes, breads, sushi… One day, she invited me over for a dinner party and blew me away with the incredible food she’d created from her tiny apartment kitchen. I think she had a big influence on me.

The other thing that has boosted my interest in cooking is my travels. I’ve always loved travelling and both Tyson and I travel largely because we are fascinated by different food cultures.

Now, I associate many happy memories with food: The days after our wedding, in Thailand, eating green curry and tom kha gai in the restaurant with the impatient waitress down the road from our hotel; salmon fillet with lobster sauce (I could have died that day and been happy) on New Year’s Eve in Stockholm; oily, delicious moussaka on a rainy night in Tinos, Greece’s tiny pilgrim island and the first of the Greek islands I ever visited on my 7 month solo trip around Europe; confit de canard (duck confit) cooked by an old lady in a little village, 3km walking distance from our holiday house built into the cliff along the Dordogne River in Southern France.

These are the memories which have made my life beautiful – times at which I’ve felt free; alive.

And these are the memories I want to recreate with my cooking.

The stories of my stained cookbook.

Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” – Ernest Hemingway. 

It got me. Finally. Just like so many others, my husband and parents included. It happened a bit faster for them, and I’m sure that for each person the ultimate contributing factors and speed of effect are quite unique. Whatever it is, it seems to happen to people. And as I sit on my Qantas 747 looking out of the window at the yellow lights of Johannesburg shrinking slowly below, I am hit with the realisation. Africa. You’ve captured me.

I sit here now trying desperately to hold onto every single moment and memory of the last three weeks, dreading that with every kilometre we get further away the memories will grow dimmer. Already it feels like our days in Johannesburg and the national parks are a long time ago. We’ve seen and done so much in between…

Well. It seems I’m getting a little mellow and nostalgic.

Ain’t nobody got time for that! I haven’t filled you in yet on our last week – the gourmet end – of our South Africa anniversary adventure: our time in the Stellenbosch wine region and Cape Town, and our experiences at three of South Africa’s top restaurants.

Our first stop was the Frog Lodge, a small, simple cottage on a wine farm at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Driving into Franschhoek, South Africa’s renowned food and wine capital, Tyson and I agreed that we had never seen a town set in such a magnificent location. We came through the mountains, having just driven through the smaller Robertson Wine Valley, and even there we were stopping constantly to take photos of the beautiful scenery. When we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of Franschhoek, a small town of white houses and vineyards surrounded by high, rocky mountains on each side, all we could say was wow. Clouds touched the top of the mountains as though placed there carefully, not daring the journey across the sky to cast shadows upon the beauty of the valley below.

At night, the wind howled through the trees outside our cottage, and in the mornings a completely blue sky was slowly touched with dabs of white as clouds crept in through the gaps in the surrounding moutains.

Franschhoek, the smallest and most spectacularly set town in the Stellenbosch wine region, is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements. It’s a charming town, though locals call it a village, and its main street is lined with cafes, gift shops and galleries. Family-run wine estates surround the town, some of which date back to the late 17th Century when French Huguenot refugees were given the land to settle in by the Dutch government.

Today, the whole region is well set up for tourists, and on our second day (we spent our first exploring the nearby city of Stellenbosch), we took part in a full day wine tasting tour featuring a small wine tram, six wineries (many still built in and around the original farm houses) and about 20 glasses of wine (each). We met some nice people, tried pairing different Biltongs and olive oils with wine, and attempted to locate bits of our palette which were able to deduce the difference between ‘intelligent vanilla flavours’, ‘red berry and tobacco notes’ and ‘subtle oak tannins.’ I am sad to say that despite this full day intensive workshop I do not consider myself any higher on the wine IQ ladder .  I admit this could also be due to the amount of wine consumed and that by the end we were happy to still be distinguishing between red and white.

Consumption of wine in excess of our usual amounts had also been a feature of our previous evening in Franshhoek, as we were lucky enough to get a table at The Tasting Room, an exciting and innovative multi award-winning restaurant spearheaded by Africa’s first Grand Chef, Margot Janse.

Because of the relativity of price and value compared to the same thing at home (a factor which has delighted us this whole trip), we decided to splash out and get the 10 course African-inspired surprise menu with matching wines. Dishes featured crazy creations like pure white ‘black pepper snow’ that disappeared on your tongue leaving a hint of pepper, tomato ice-cream, oyster mousse and a cocktail made with popcorn; and for each course the waiters explained the history and method of the dish and why the matching wine was paired perfectly. It was an incredible culinary adventure.

Although we would have loved to stay in Franschhoek for longer, it was soon time to head to Cape Town – the last stop on our amazing journey.

In Cape Town we were accommodated in Frances’ Air B&B apartment – a cool designer loft in the middle of a trendy but rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood. Woodstock, a fairly mixed race part of town, has lots of hip antique and design shops lined up beside great cafes and lots of colourful street art. The area is going through an urban transformation stage, though you could tell that there were still a few issues when the police showed up two nights in a row at the house opposite us in the middle of the night.

Just a short distance from Frances’ apartment lies the Old Biscuit Mill, home of a vibrant Saturday food and craft market and the famous South African restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

The Test Kitchen was listed 28th in the 2015 Top 50 restaurants in the world and Best Restaurant in Africa in 2015

. The Pot Luck Club, its newer sister restaurant, is just meters away, and while the food was tasty, it seemed that in every other way it was the ugly step sister to The Test Kitchen, as the service and other features simply did not compare. Tyson and I joked that it was the reject restaurant for everyone who wanted to get into The Test Kitchen but couldn’t – after all, when we tried to book a dinner in May for August, the place was booked through to November. We were lucky to get in for lunch. At The Test Kitchen, the food was beautiful and considered but less experimental than The Tasting Room. Tyson preferred this but I was more excited by  the abstract nature and creativity at The Tasting Room.

By the end of all of this (affordable!) fanciness (AUD 55 each for a 7-course degustation at Africa’s best restaurant) we were ready for some normal food again, and finished our last day in Cape Town with some seafood at the V&A Waterfront with Gareth, the friend who had taken us for dinner in Johannesburg on our very first night in the country.

Last but not least, we retraced our footsteps of 2006 (the first time both Tyson and I came to Cape Town) and visited Rick’s Cafe, the same place we randomly discovered on our first ever night  in the city.

And there it was. A full circle. A circle of food, roads, laughter, locals, animals, towns, beautiful scenery and memories so many they get lost in the vacuum.

It has been, without a doubt, and only in competition with my 7-month solo Europe trip at age 18, the best holiday of my life and my heart is full of thankfulness for every moment and every day that I got to experience this adventure with my best friend.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. – 1 Chronicles 29:13