Chateau

When my uncle first mentioned that my cousin had purchased a chateau in France, I imagined that a chateau was some kind of rustic country house. In this case, it turns out that chateau meant closer to ‘castle’, complete with a turret that houses the staircase from basement to attic. Though it’s in a bit of disrepair (and has salamanders invading the basement), everything seems intact.

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It also apparently came with several other buildings on the property, including a stone farmhouse and chicken coop. These buildings are also looking worse for wear, but they make for beautiful photos.

Nothing a bit of hard work can’t fix, right?

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The chateau also comes with a guardian in the form of Drago, the chubby dog owned by the farmer next door. He bounds up to meet us when we arrive, on the heels of my uncle. The entire back half of Drago’s body wags when my uncle pulls bags of treats from a drawer in the chateau’s kitchen.

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Drago follows us for walks in the nearby woods, which is the primary activity in our days. We wander through the trees, still verdant despite the increasing chill each morning, and forage for fallen chestnuts or document the fungi we find.

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Back at the chateau, we use the oven to bake our foraged chestnuts and huddle in the kitchen over bowls of warm chicken soup. We visited a nearby supermarket, Super U, when we first arrived and bought some chicken and vegetables. They don’t seem like anything special, but they taste far better than anything  from the U.S. supermarkets. The food really is just better in France.

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Less than 24 hours in Milan

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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We have arrived later than we hoped in Milan thanks to the Phantom Train fiasco, with our train on to France departing in ~20 hours. Which is a shame, because it turns out Milan is gorgeous and everything I wanted in a city: walkable and beautiful.

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The plaza of the Duomo Cathedral
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The Disco di Arnaldo Pomodoro
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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
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Evening commute at dusk
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Milan bokeh!

Milan also has a Chinatown! With some actually good Chinese food!

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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Bubble Tea in Milan

It really is too bad the new EMA HQ didn’t end up here.

The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Olive Oil on Brac

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Half olive oil producer, half museum, Muzej Uja (Museum Uja) is in the outskirts of Skrip, itself south of Splitska. The towns here are tiny so ‘outskirts’ means a whole five minute’s drive. It’s been in town for a long, long time, and the man who runs it told us his great grandfather had started it.

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He spent some time showing us around, pointing out interesting bits and bobs. This is the main attraction of the museum, the old fashioned olive press. It’s pushed and pulled around over and over, squeezing the olives down into pulp and oil.

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From above we got a great view of the massive stone slabs that it was made of. Quarried right here on the island no doubt. It was in use for almost 100 years, until the industrial revolution caught up in full with the oilery business and hydraulic presses replaced the old fashioned turn-wheel.

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The upstairs of the museum used to be a residence, but they turned it into a sampling room.

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The interesting part here is the piled stone roof. Nothing holds it together except pressure and the skill of the craftsman who created it. The owner told us it took forever to find someone skilled enough to repair the roof when it broke, and he thinks soon enough no one around will know how to.

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The view from up here is pretty fantastic too!

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Back downstairs, the new cold press machine takes on the duty of making olive oil for the family. They’re hoping to expand with a second machine sometime in the future, but in the meantime this is apparently as good as it gets in terms of oil presses.

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When the owner found out we were traveling around the world, he asked us to sit and eat a bit with him. Before we could even thank him, a small assortment of home made spreads was in front of us, and we were enjoying the just-around-noon sun. Thank goodness for hats. We talked for a long time about our trip, his business, it’s history and plans, his family – especially the education of his kids and their hopefully bright future. When the afternoon tour group came by, we said our goodbyes and wished each other luck and happiness. This is really the best part of traveling. Meeting people and making a connection, despite the vast distance between our lives. We hope everything goes well for Kruno and his oil museum – we’d really like to come back someday.

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P.S. The tasting is well worth it. Their olive oil is fresh and delicious, and they sell a fantastic sort of cherry liqueur that we took on with us. Plus, right outside the oilery, kittens!

Recipes from your Bulgarian Aunt

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Lela Stanka has embraced our visit to Nikolaevo by cooking up a storm, and I’ve been watching carefully and taking notes. Without further ado, here are her gifts to us (and you), traditional home cooking from Central Bulgaria. We also got a jar of lutenitsa as a gift from Lela Stanka, but that’s ours and we’re not sharing.

Rose Hip Tea

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A ubiquitous recipe throughout European cultures that has been mostly forgotten in the present day but makes the perfect entry into foraging and wild food. Wild rose hips collected in the late summer and autumn are steeped in hot water overnight to make a tangy, floral tea.

– 1/2 cup rose hips (make sure they have no holes)
– 1 1/2 cups water

  1. Rinse the rose hips and cut them in half of crush them. The goal is to break the skin. If you were careless and collected ones with holes, you might find some grubs here.
  2. Put rose hips into water and boil. You can let it steep overnight if you want it to be stronger
  3. Pour through a sieve and serve.

Lutenitsa

This traditional Bulgarian pepper spread is AMAZING. This spread pairs well with practically anything savory, from rice and bread to eggs and meat. It’s like the Ajvar that’s served in much of the Balkans, but better (I may be biased). The best Lutenitsa is homemade, and while we didn’t have time to make it with Lela Stanka, I did get her to share the family recipe:

Makes 12 14-oz. jars of Lutenitsa

– 100 sweet peppers, about as big as an average adult hand
– 2 small or 1 medium-sized eggplant
– 5-6 medium-sized carrots
– 1 8 oz can of tomato paste (note: hers is homemade and contains no salt, so she recommended lowering the salt content below to make up for salt in store-bought tomato pastes)
– 2-3 tbsp salt
– 3-4 tbsp sugar
– 3-4 cloves garlic
– 1 cup vegetable oil

Roast and peel peppers:

  1. This step is pretty time-intensive, so it’s often done in batches or the day before. Put peppers in a covered dish and roast in an oven or pepper-roaster (these are store-bought or homemade ovens common in Bulgaria). Let them steam for 2-3 hours, until limp, then remove and let cool.
  2. Once cool, peel the peppers. Dip fingers in a dish of cold water and peel the skins from each pepper, then pull the stem and seeds from the top of the pepper. Discard skins, pepper stems, and seeds. Place the peeled peppers on a plate or flat surface for a few hours, dumping off liquid from the peppers as it collects.

Make sauce:

  1. Roast eggplants in the oven. Make cuts in their sides before roasting them to prevent explosion, and remove them from the oven when they start to get dark spots and feel soft. After removing them from the oven, put them on a plate to let the juice drain out for an hour. Move eggplants to a new plate and dump the eggplant juice (it’s bitter).
  2. Cut carrots and boil until soft
  3. Combine the veggies. Grind the roasted peppers with the roasted eggplant and boiled carrots. When mostly mashed, add the tomato paste. Put it in a big pot and mix in salt/sugar to taste.
  4. Heat mixture over medium heat, stirring in oil in 1/4 cup amounts. When the mixture starts boiling, reduce to a simmer.
  5. Mash the garlic into a paste. When the sauce in the pot has a jam-like consistency, turn off heat, add the garlic paste, and mix thoroughly.
  6. Transfer sauce to jars and follow your standard steps for canning. Lela Stanka boils her jars for 30 mins.

Village Potatoes

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These are your standard roasted potatoes, but with Bulgarian spices and seasonings.

– 15 small to medium-sized potatoes
– 1 tsp cumin
– 2 tbsp Bulgarian oregano
– 1 tbsp regular oregano
– 1 tsp tumeric
– 1 tsp curry powder
– 1 tsp salt
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel potatoes, and cut into thick ~1 cm wedges. Put potato wedges into a pot.
  2. Put enough water into a pot to cover, add ~1 tsp of salt
  3. Bring potatoes to a boil and cook for ~5 min.
  4. Pour oil into the bottom of a roasting pan. Mix spices together, and then mix into the oil in the pan.
  5. Using a strainer or slotted spoon, transfer potatoes into roasting pan and mix.
  6. Bake at 220-230 Celsius, until golden brown.

Breaded and baked squash

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When you want to eat veggies but don’t want them raw in a salad or boiled and limp, breading and roasting comes to the rescue! The spices used in village potatoes (above) could also be used here.

– 1 large zucchini
– 2+ tsps Flour
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel zucchini and cut in half perpendicular to its length. Then slice lengthwise to make flat, thin strips.
  2. Put 1-2 tbsp oil and 2 tsps flower into a baking pan
  3. Dip zucchini strips into flour, then layer into baking pan
  4. When done layering, sprinkle a couple teaspoons of oil on top, then sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste
  5. Bake in oven at 220-230 C for ~20 min, until zucchini have golden-brown spots
  6. After removing from the oven, season with crushed garlic and salt, then serve with yogurt

Feta cheese bread

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This bread is one of Stoytcho’s favorite childhood memories. It’s like a savory cinnamon roll filled with feta cheese. A few non-traditional twists on this (like adding dill or other herbs with the feta) would probably also be delicious.

– 2-3 tsps sugar
– 1 cube of yeast (1 tbsp yeast; or a standard 2.25 tsp yeast packet in other countries) – water
– Flour
– 3 eggs
– Salt
– Melted butter
– 6-8 oz of Feta cheese (12 oz if you want more cheesy)

  1. Activate yeast. Mash the yeast cube/mix dried yeast into 1/2 cup of water with 2-3 tsps of sugar, and then add 1/4 cup flour. In a separate small bowl, beat 3 eggs with a bit of salt.
  2. In 5-10 mins, when yeast is bubbly and eggs have rested for a bit, mix the two together
  3. Add 7 tbsp of oil into the mix, then add ~2 cups + 2 tsps of water and 2-3 tsps of salt. Mix.
  4. Then add 4-5 c flour and a bit more water (you can tell this is exact), then mix with your hands to remove lumps. It will be sticky.
  5. Then add flour until it reaches a dough consistency but is still a bit sticky
  6. Knead for 5-10 mins
  7. Oil the sides of a deep bowl, then place dough in it and cover with plastic wrap and set aside until doubled. You can also put it in the fridge overnight; it will keep for about 2 days
  8. Oil or butter a baking dish.
  9. Split the dough in half and roll one half into a large round-ish sheet. Then roll the second half out in another place. Spread melted butter on top of one rolled-out piece dough, and then crumble feta cheese over it. Place the other rolled-out piece of dough on top of the butter and cheese and press down slightly to flatten.
  10. Poke a hole through in the center of the dough circle through to the other side. Begin pulling the dough from the bottom side up through the hole, rolling the dough outward from the hole to the edges of the dough sheets. This will form a ring of rolled dough.
  11. Cut the rolled dough into cinnamon bun-like wedges and place in greased baking dish. When done, cover and let rise again for 30 mins to an hour
  12. Preheat oven to 200 C. Put the rolls in the oven and bake for 10 mins, then reduce heat to 175 C and bake for another 20 mins or until buns are golden brown on top. Remove and serve toasty warm, or when they’ve cooled with fresh yogurt.

For those who found the assembly description confusing:

Below is the step-by-step of assembly in pictures. I suspect this assembly method would also work wonderfully for babka, cinnamon rolls, or other such rolled desserts.

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Roll out both halves of the dough. Brush one piece with butter and sprinke feta over it, then place second layer of dough on top.
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Poke a whole and begin pulling layer beneath up and out, rolling dough outward from the center.
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Continue rolling dough outward from the center hole.
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Form into a ring shape, squeezing to make sure distribution of cheese and dough is mostly even.
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Slice rolls from the ring shape and place in greased pan.

Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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Desserts of Austria

Despite being a bit shy in vegetables, Austria makes up for it in desserts. Every region seems to have its own thing going on, and everyone we asked had a different favorite dessert. We were not disappointed in the variety.

We start with the Mozart candy. Sightseeing around Vienna, it’s almost impossible to avoid these chocolate balls wrapped with Mozart’s face.

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Called ‘Mozartkugel’ – Morazart balls, they are a 1890’s development by an Austrian confectioner. They became popular and now many companies make them, as this page shows. The Mirabell ones are available everywhere and they’re.. ok. Not super, but not terrible. Were we to go for another round, we’d try a different brand.


Next up are Manner Wafers! Almost as unavoidable as the Mozart balls, and seemingly more beloved. They’re in every grocery store and they’re sold from single packs of four wafers all the way up to 16 packs and up. Our hosts in Wels (near Linz) told us that every household keeps a stash of these on hand for random occasions and also just every-day snacking. They’re very good indeed. Our picture of them, is not.

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You can see the bottom of the wafer wrapper in the top of the photo. For an actual photo type thing, go here. I really liked the manner cookies – not too sweet and just the right touch of hazelnut.


Past the supermarket shelves, Austria has a whole slew of ‘tortes’ – cakes, usually a little bit fancy. The one everyone said we should absolutely try was the Sachertorte. It’s chocolate cake, thin layers of apricot jam in the middle, and a smooth coating of dark chocolate. We had one in Prague, of all places. In a Starbucks. For shame. And really, it would have probably been better in Vienna, the Starbucks version was acceptable but not spectacular.

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This cake is generally extremely popular. It was so popular it launched a hotel for the creator – the Sacher Hotel. There was a bit of a legal spat about the rights to the ‘Original Sacher Torte’ name and trademark, but it seems to have been worked out and you can get one at either of the Sacher Hotels, the Sacher Cafes, and a few other places. There are also quite acceptable and delicious variants found in bakeries all over Vienna.


Last, and certainly not least, is the Linzer Torte, named after the city of Linz. Natalie had read up on this and knew we needed to try it. Apparently, there is the one highly suggested home of the Linzer Torte – Konditorei Jindrak. Like the Sacher Torte however, there are many variants available, all of them probably quite delicious. We got to the Jindrak Bakery just as it was closing, so we snatched our cake and went on our way. Around us, the rest of the town closed slowly – except for the pubs and restaurants.

IMG_20170908_180703 We tried two varieties – the original, pictured above. And.. IMG_20170908_180141the cookie variety! It’s cuter and looks more edible but it falls apart faster, and the original torte-style seems the better of the two.

The cake, in either of its forms, is a crumbly mass of dough covered in a fruity jam and spiced with cinnamon and lemon zest. The toppings are refreshing in the face of the somewhat heavy dough. As a warning – this is a very crumbly cake. The cookie version was almost impossible to eat without a massive trail of crumbs. Definitely a sit-down dessert. However, we found it worth the effort of keeping intact. It’s sugary but not overly sweet, and the tang and spice of the jam and lemon zest really perk it up. The Linzertorte holds claim to being the oldest cake recipe in the word, having a record dating back to the 1600s. We’re glad it’s still being made!

 

Truffle Hunting Lessons in Prague

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The not-so-humble truffle, in cross-section.

If you couldn’t already tell from the mushroom foraging adventure in Australia and the hundreds of mushroom photos on this blog, I love fungi. They’re an underappreciated group, which is unfair because some of them taste delicious. But you could spend all day trying to convince people to eat shaggy manes and wine caps from their backyards and get nowhere*.

Not so with the truffle, the beloved subterranean nugget prized for its rich, heavenly flavor that now appears in everything from fries to honey in our most upscale restaurants. We shave tiny flakes of it into pastas, buy real and imitation extracts, and ogle tiny chunks of the fresh stuff protected in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass cases in only the finest of gourmet grocers. If there is royalty in the mushroom culinary world, the truffle is king.

And now we’re getting a lesson in hunting them here in Prague! This is all thanks my amazing friend and mentor Zoë, who gifted Stoytcho and I a truffle-hunting lesson with the man who supplies 80% of Prague’s restaurants with the delicacy, Petr Synek.

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The park where we’ll have our lesson.

Petr meets us and another guest on a warm morning at the park, a large gray hunting dog tugging him along. “This is Nela,” Petr tells us as he kneels down to let her off the leash. Nela immediately bolts off and runs circles in the fields, “She has a lot of energy, which is good for hunting truffles,” Petr laughs as he calls her back in Czech. Nela bounds back to him, and he begins the lesson.

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Petr introduces Nela and covers Truffle Hunter Training 101.

First, Petr describes the three ways people hunt for truffles: alone, with pigs, and with dogs. “Some people are able to detect small clouds of flies right near the truffles and know where to dig, but you miss most of the best specimens if you rely on this, so most people have pigs or train dogs,” Petr says. Historically, pigs were used because they were naturally attracted to the truffle scent, but they also love to eat truffles and hunters risk losing the truffle (and a few fingers) in the battle to get it back. “You see many old truffle hunters with four, three fingers, or parts of fingers missing, because they have to put their hand in the mouth of the pig to try and get a truffle.”

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Nela gets a treat.

Nowadays, most truffle hunters train dogs to find the prize. Petr describes how the Italians traditionally rub truffle oil on the nipples of breastfeeding dogs to train them, though doing so means that the dog will later show the same risk of trying to eat the truffle.  And Nela? “She’s trained in the Czech way, because we have a history of training dogs here during the Communist era,” Peter winks. He says another command in Czech and Nela bounds up. She knows it is time for training and treat-getting to begin.

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Nela searches for the scent of hidden truffle oil-soaked towels.

Petr walks us through Nela’s training, from the simple conditioning of associating a click noise with treats to finding a location that a truffle-oil soaked towel is hidden. Along the way, he points out the main pitfalls in training truffle-hunting dogs. First is the dog’s gender – you want a female dog, because sometimes a male dog will chase the scent of a female dog instead of a truffle, and you won’t know it for miles. Second is always training the dog with the same tools or in the same location, because she learns to associate treats with a location and not necessarily the truffle scent. And third is using only one source of truffle scent – the oil is cheaper to use in training than real truffles, but it doesn’t exactly replicate the scent of a true truffle. While Petr explains this, he trains Nela, hiding the oil-soaked towel in different places and rewarding her with treats as she finds it.

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A moment where she stands still (finally).

After training practice, our group walks further into the park where the trees shade us and the ground foliage is denser. Petr pulls a napkin-lined box out of his bag and opens it to reveal the real deal. They look like a black bark-covered nugget, but the scent gives it away as a truffle. “This is a black truffle. I only hunt black, summer, and some winter truffles,” he explains, “because white truffles are the most expensive and people are very territorial of their hunting grounds and will shoot rivals’ dogs.” Petr passes a truffle out to each of us and instructs us to hide it. We dash off while he distracts Nela with games.

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We hide truffles for Nela to hunt.

The three of us choose different locations, all about 100 feet away from each other. One of us hides a truffle in the roots of a tree; another hides it among the rocky outcrops off the trail. One of us puts it in a small hole under a rock. We return to Petr, who says a magic word and Nela is off, hunting for the scent of truffles. It’s easy for her to smell them in the warm morning air, and she finds all three in only a few minutes.

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Nela’s on a mission to find the last missing truffle.

After the lesson, the four of us return to Prague for a visit to a restaurant that buys Petr’s truffles. He arranges lunch as a part of the lesson, and the three of us get heaping plates of fresh pasta, chicken, and shaved truffle. He also gives us each a parting gift – half of a truffle each to take home and use. “Put it into the food at the end of cooking so it retains the most flavor, and use it in eggs, with pasta, or in a sauce. Enjoy!”

Want to have your own truffle hunting lesson in Prague? You can book it here.

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Chicken and truffle pasta, mmm…

*okay, so this is only partly ick factor – U.S. culture also largely lacks the mushroom-identifying experience that many European cultures have built over thousands of years.

Food of Prague

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Walking the streets of Prague at night is a lovely experience. It’s dark with lights floating the air, illuminating the street from two meters up, or reflecting down from the lit up buildings. As pedestrians (mostly tourists in the old town) wander between restaurants and bars and shops, you will likely see someone carrying a strangely large ice cream cone.

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This is the filled variant of the Trdelník. The “ter del nik”, with the accent on the last syllable, is a cinnamon-roll like dough wrapped around a thick wooden rod and slowly turned over a fire until it’s crispy and brown on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Oh, and it’s lightly coated in sugar just as it comes off the fire giving it a sweet glaze.

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It’s not particularly a Czech thing, except in that Prague had the most Trdelnik shops in any of the cities we visited. The bread baked on a stick concept is as old as the greeks and a version of this is available in many European countries. For tourists though, Prague is the current center of the roll.

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It doesn’t really matter where it came from or what name it goes by, the Trdelnik is delicious. There are some shops that make it better than others so it’s worth trying a few. Of the ones we tried, most of them were just the right mix of crispy and chewy. They’re big enough to share, but ours disappeared pretty quickly – they’re best eaten hot after all.

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Outside of delicious eat-as-you-walk dessert, we got extremely lucky with the other traditional dishes we ate. The restaurant that was recommended to us (U Magistra Kelly) featured a plethora of great food and highly drinkable, cheap, beer.

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There’s one dish I really want to have again, that I haven’t had anywhere else. It’s the pork filled dumplings. In European tradition, a dumpling is a boiled ball of dough. It comes out dense and chewy, a lot like polenta. They don’t have this in Bulgaria though, and we only had one brief encounter with the dumpling in Poland. In Prague we had these beauties – fantastic dough filled with delicious pork.

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To go with the dumplings is the beef goulash, also a traditional north/eastern European dish. It’s thick, savory, and salty. Hard to get wrong and amazing when done right.

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The architecture in Prague is breathtaking, the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. The maze-like streets hold tiny restaurants and shops in every nook and cranny. Asking is the best way to find where to eat, and the dishes you can find are more than worth the trouble. We (our stomachs!) look forward to coming back.

Warsaw

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We’re in Warsaw after an uncomfortable overnight bus ride in which I had food poisoning, but that’s ok because Poland has amazing food for cheaper than your average European country. Pierogi and golonka, here I come.

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Veal Pierogi with fresh pickled slaws.
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Golonka (pork knuckle) with sauce and mashed potatoes.

As we wander the streets of Warsaw, though, I can’t help but ask myself “Where are all the people?” Except for a handful of tourists and the occasional homeless person, the parks we find are empty. The trolleys ferry only one or two souls at a time.

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An empty bridge over the highway.
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Graffiti laced statue base. It probably once held a Soviet monument.
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Trolley rails embedded in the grass of a park.

The only crowds we see are at the local farmer’s market (which is a bit livelier, but not until about midday) and in Warsaw’s “Old Town”, reconstructed after bombing in the Second World War leveled 80% of the city. Even here, the crowds of tourists aren’t dense and on a rainy day, everyone disappears.

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People line up for fresh Chineve/Vietnamese food at the farmer’s market.
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Tourists stop to listen to violinists play in the Old Town.
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The Old Town on a rainy day.
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Men waiting out the rain in the Old Town.

The dearth of people, especially young people, isn’t surprising in Warsaw. First, we’re not wandering the financial/downtown district, where everyone actually works. Second, a lot of younger working-age Poles have left for Western Europe. Since Poland joined the EU, over 2 million Poles have emigrated, many of them young people looking for better-paying jobs.

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A young woman checks her phone while waiting outside her store.
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“The Little Insurrectionist”, a statue in the Old Town that commemorates the child soldiers who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

But not everyone has left. One evening, we go out for a walk along the Vistula River and find ourselves part of a steady trickle of people in that direction. They’re all young and dressed up, and many are carrying bottles of wine or packs of beer. The trickle becomes a stream of people, and when we reach the riverbank there are dense crowds of people milling around, drinking, laughing, and socializing. Food trucks and ice cream carts line the sidewalk. We ask a couple of English-speaking Poles what’s going on; “Is this a special event?” we ask. “No,” one of them replies, “This happens almost every night in the summer.” So this is where the people are.

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Warsaw nightlife on the riverbank.
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Crowds of people, sitting and standing and drinking on the riverbank.