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.

Next stop, Venice!

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Venice is a beautiful and fascinating place. I’ve always wanted to visit, Natalie not so much. It turns out that it’s got a little bit of everything, good and bad. Its beautiful, winding alleys interspersed with canals and bridges and spires are inspiring. The measures taken to keep buildings from falling and the island from sinking are a testament to human ingenuity and stubbornness. Its attitude towards tourists and the costs (and sometimes smells) of living on the island are saddening. In my view visiting Venice is worth it for two things – the history and architecture, and the marvel of engineering that keeps the city alive. Most of the tourist traps should be rightfully avoided, and it’s best to stay away from popular areas at peak hours.

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There are basically two ways to see Venice. The cheaper and arguably more lively route is to stay on the mainland at one of several campsites or large hostel-like buildings, and bus in in the morning. The other way, significantly more expensive, but better for seeing Venice the way we wanted to, is to stay on the island itself. It’s not cheap, but for a very short stay, the value of waking up before dawn and walking the empty streets is worth the extra fee.

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We took the bus out of Sant’Agata, then on to the next bus to Rimini, and finally on to the train north to Venice. Midway through the trip our train stopped and a bunch of announcements came on in Italian. We did not understand them. The train stayed in the station and eventually people started shuffling off. A conductor came by and told us, in slightly broken English, that the train would not be moving again soon, and we should go on to a different track to catch the replacement. We’ve been through worse transportation adventures, but the feeling of an impromptu change of plans in a language we don’t understand is always exciting.

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There is the last station on the mainland, and then the open water. The train tracks cross over a narrow bridge, on either side the Venetian Lagoon. Technically, the mainland just before the crossing is also part of the district of Venice, but what everyone thinks of when they hear the name is found across this bridge.

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Right out the gate, Venice does not disappoint. The church of San Simeon is literally the first thing most people see when they leave the station. It’s gorgeous and only a taste of what’s to come.

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There are a few ways to get to the inner islands – all of them are connected by bridges, with a bus ferry, or with ferry taxis. The ‘bus’ is actually fairly expensive, and the distances are short. With so much to see the natural choice is to walk everywhere. If we were here for a week or more, maybe the bus ferries would have been a more appealing option.

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In the fading hours of the day we made our way to the hotel. Despite the day’s journey and the weight of the packs, we still lingered and turned in all directions staring at the city around us. In short order we were introduced to both the magnificent Italian architecture, the tightly clustered houses and apartments, and the occasional but persistent vendors of tourist things.

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We also found that the city of Venice has an attitude, and the people are not shy expressing themselves on the walls. This was probably the largest demonstration we saw, but there are plenty of smaller ones scattered alone or in clusters around the city. The topics range from banning tourists to saving the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change is often on the minds of those living here.

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Night fell and we left our hotel in search of food. To set expectations, hotels in Venice are not very similar to most people’s idea of a hotel. Unless you pay a lot of money, it will resemble something of a walk-up, 2 to 3 stories of three or four rooms on each floor with a shared bathroom. Much like a hostel in any other part of the world. Similarly, the food is not reasonably priced. This is entirely expected in an extremely popular and difficult to supply city, but it’s good to be aware.

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Luckily for us, right near our hotel was a Bigoi. This is a small, almost fast-food version of pasta, where you pick your noodles, sauce, and meat, and they make it fresh for you. It costs about 5 euros and each bowl is enough for a person. Not the best in terms of nutrition, but they taste great and they’re cheap! There are also small grocery stores available, but they still run fairly expensive, and they do tend to run out of key ingredients at night, especially bread. We relied pretty heavily on Bigoi and the snacks we brought with us while we were in Venice.

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Also pastries. We didn’t eat a lot of fancy food in Venice but we did make room in the budget for coffee and pastries in the morning. The coffee is still very affordable – 1.20 Euro. The pastries can be a little expensive but are still around a few euro each. This one is called a sfogliatelle. It’s small, packed with cream and syrup, and somehow amazingly crunchy and flaky. It’s fantastic and we found the one we liked best was in the pastry shop Pasticceria Toletta. The lady working the counter in the morning is super nice, and their pastries and coffee are fantastic.

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Next time – Venetian architecture!

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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Ancona, Intro to Italy

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Ancona is an interesting place. It’s definitely not touristy, but it still has the charming attractions of an Italian city – beautiful old architecture, a lovely promenade, coffee.. pizza.. really we didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us had ever been to Italy, and we came because I had always wanted to see Venice and Natalie had always wanted to go to a truffle festival.

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Ancona was our crash course in how to get around in Italy. First – mediocre Spanish will not cut it. Some people might humor you and try to understand, but by and large we had more success with English and a tiny bit of Spanish than full on Spanish. Maybe if we had tried Spanish with an Italian accent?

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Second – Italians love their mid day break. Everything, and I mean everything, excepting cafes, restaurants, and maybe hospitals, shuts down for the hours of 1 to 4, give or take. It’s fantastic and infuriating at the same time. We’re so used to 24 hour on demand everything all the time. When it’s not available we’re not sure what to do. I think the Italians are on to something though.

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Third – do ask for help. As with many countries on our trip, Italians seem interested in travelers and asking politely (if plainly) is very often the best way to get what you need or find out where you need to go. We haven’t mentioned this much, but post offices around the world are full of some of the nicest and most helpful people imaginable. Maybe we got lucky? The Ancona post office staff took great care of us and got our package through the relatively complex shipping procedure in no time. In a related act of kindness, we needed packing material so I went to a nearby newstand and did my best to ask for the cheapest newspaper they had. The vendor said “it’s Italian, can you read?” I told him it was for mail, for a package. He dropped a pile of newspapers in my arms and said they were free, yesterday’s lot.

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Ancona itself is split into two parts – a lower section near the water, and the remainder atop a massive cliff. It’s a hike to get to the old town, and the metro system was unintelligible to us the first day. The streets are tiny, especially in the old town – this will become a running theme in Italy. Vespas and tiny cars are popular for a reason.

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Beautiful,

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ancient,

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architecture.
Italy does not disappoint.

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When everything’s closed and you have no plans, what to do but get coffee? It turns out fancy drinks like this are a bit unusual for Italy. Everywhere else so far the coffee has been plain espresso, or maybe with a dash of milk (steamed, foamed, straight). A regular small cup costs 1 euro and almost everyone has one for breakfast. It’s like a natural right here, and the coffee is almost always excellent.

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Ancona even has a bit of a fashion district on the promenade.

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On our way back to the hotel we passed this intriguing restaurant. It was closed when we passed. We wanted to come back but still couldn’t figure out the buses, so when it came time for dinner we decided to eat local. I think if we had more than a day and change in Ancona the public transit would have eventually made sense, but there’s not much in the way of tourist information when it comes to riding the trams.

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What does eating local look like? A random pizzeria near the hotel. Full disclosure, this was the third random pizzeria near the hotel that we looked at. The other two were not nearly as appetizing. We asked the lady at the front desk of our hotel if a single pizza was enough for two. It turns out sharing a pie is uncommon here – they’re very thin crust and designed to be eaten by one person. That may be the intent, but we were full pretty quick, even with the thin crust. We finished it though – it was too good!

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Next time – we head to Sant’Agata Feltria for their truffle festival!

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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Visiting family

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One of the best parts of going back home is family. For me seeing family is synonymous with eating – lots and lots of eating. Since we normally see each group once every few years, they make a point of pulling out the stops and setting a table for at least twice as many people as there actually are. This time was no exception, other than having a smaller crowd.

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This is part of my dad’s side of the family – they’re in Plovdiv and I’ve always been happy to see them. I haven’t been surrounded by so many relatives in very long time. In years past my dad’s entire family, or as close as possible, would gather in their apartment when we visited, more than a dozen people all around the table drinking, laughing, and eating.

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It’s a bit strange to take pictures of food in Bulgaria, at least at my relatives’ house, but I did it anyway, just for the memories. The theme of most meals is homemade meat, potatoes, breads, spreads, lots of dairy, and alcohol. My dad’s uncle brews his own plentiful and delicious rakia, some of the best I’ve had. Rakia is a plum brandy sort of hard alcohol found all over the balkan peninsula and the area beyond. It’s clear or yellow, fruity, and sometimes a little sweet. The store bought stuff is usually ok, but the real deal is home made from the family orchard in a small village somewhere. The white soup front and center is tarator, or cucumber soup in the states. Delicious and refreshing during the summer months. Since there were only four people eating at this meal, it’s a bit smaller than usual but no less delicious. Missing from the spread this time around is my aunt’s delicious homemade banitsa – more doughy than flaky and chock full of white cheese.

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Interestingly enough, the gauntlet of family visits that awaits every time we come back to Bulgaria has kept me from seeing much of the country outside the four or five cities where my family has spread to. This trip was not particularly different, but we did get to stop more along the way, and because we had a car all to ourselves we got to travel around and see landmarks and attractions that were not on the two-week all-family-all-the-time trail of the visits of my childhood. It’s sort of nice to be a tourist back home.

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Next time, exploring the sights outside of Plovdiv!

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!

 

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.