Barcelona – So Little Time So Much To Do

Barcelona is a cosmopolitan metropolis on Spain’s east coast. Voted by National Geographic as the best beach city in the world, it is a very attractive holiday destination. Each year 8 million people visit Barcelona, making it Europe’s third most visited city.

This was my first visit to the Catalan capital, which meant I made some basic errors; I queued for hours, ate poor tapas and spent too long warding off street vendors on the beach front and on Las Ramblas. I made these mistakes, so you don’t have to. If, like me, the thought of elderly Americans shuffling through foreign streets, gazing at historic scenes through their camera lenses makes your skin crawl, my guide to Barcelona should help you to avoid the torturous crowds.

Parc Güell

A major tourist attraction, the gardens, designed by Antoní Gaudí, offer tremendous aerial views of Barcelona’s city scape. Although many people flood here to see the Catalan artist’s melting architecture, Güell, being a park, presents those with a phobia of crowds the opportunity to absorb the awe-inspiring views in solitude. Like most major tourist attractions around the world, entrance to the centre of the park – the area which encloses the majority of the art nouveau buildings – incurs a fee. Personally, I believe it is ridiculous; paying to stare at a building’s façade. Thus, I did not enter. There are plenty of structures around Güell which enable you to gain an understanding of Gaudí’s style without paying for the privilege of using your eyes.

Alternatively, if you really despise other people, Parc del Guinardό, a small walk east of Güell, houses the greatest view of Barcelona, superior to the sight at Gaudí’s park. Just look for the sign-posted Gran Vista. Cockatoos, pigeons, parrots and lizards live harmoniously in this four tiered park which is frequented only by locals, a true escape from Barcelona’s throbbing throngs of tourists.

Casa Batllό

Intrigued by Gaudí’s unusual style at Parc Güell, our curiosity led us to Casa Batllό. Gaudí’s architectural jewel stands audaciously on Passeig de Gracia, strikingly different from its neighbouring facades. Regardless of the fact it is infested with tourists, it would be blasphemous not to visit. I was astounded by the combination of beauty, ergonomics and unique design. Particularly impressive were the brass door handles, which Gaudí himself moulded from clay to fit perfectly in the hand. Admittedly, we spent over an hour in the queue but Casa Batllό is like no other museum I have visited; the guided audio tour was informative and the whole experience was invitingly interactive, which is important in understanding the artists thought processes and influences. If you can suppress your social anxiety for a few hours, give Batllό a go.

La Xampaneria

The Catalan region is famed for producing cava. If you would like to drink some excellent sparkle without paying tourist prices, La Xampaneria, located near Barceloneta metro station and the Gothic Quarter, is a great place for doing just that. For just €7 you can buy a bottle of Can Paixano, a sweet, pink cava which is extremely quaffable. There is also a great selection of small bites to accompany the booze. The croquettes, of which we ordered numerous plates, were delicious, especially when dipped in the bar’s homemade honey mustard sauce. The boquerones – anchovies – a new favourite bar snack of mine, are served swimming in paprika and olive oil. We struggled to move through the jolly mass of people and constantly clashed elbows when guiding cava to our mouths. There were, however, very few tourists here, Spanish was the only language we heard spoken.

Restaurante Salamanca

Salamanca has stood on the Barcelona seafront for over 40 years, you would therefore assume they could produce a faultless seafood paella. We decided to dine at Salamanca after a friend, who had worked in the city, recommended it. The dining space is a vast, carpeted marquee, not an architectural masterpiece but it does enable a view of the sea. The sun had been shining all day and there was a salty sea breeze in the air, paella was an easy choice. It arrived, without a smile, and in typical style the pan engulfed the table. The rice was perfectly cooked, the mussels were tender not oversentimental and the prawns were plentiful. Depressingly, however, my favourite element of a paella – the clams – were undercooked and not one had even opened. When we relayed this sad information to the surly waiting staff they just shrugged apathetically. The food and wine are reasonably priced at Salamanca and the view is very pleasant but the experience, as a whole, lacked panache. Their website claims their paella is famous, perhaps, once upon a time. I am sure you could find a better version elsewhere in the city.

Mont Bar

Unlike Salamanca, I don’t have a bad word to say about Mont Bar. Here, they offer a finely selected menu of tapas and plates which walk the line between tradition and the avant-garde. Clearly propelled by a young, innovative kitchen team Mont Bar was my favourite Barcelona eating experience. We started our meal with jamόn croquettes, a mandatory amuse-bouche in Spain, it seems. The list of starters is dominated by fish options, from these I strongly suggest you order the squid ink crisp and the scallop nigiri. Aesthetically, the crisp was a sight to behold. Vibrant cubes of mango and smoked sardine sat nestled in a paper-thin black crisp. The smoky fish, the sweet mango and the slightly salty crisp balanced beautifully making this more than just a visual spectacle. The nigiri, although not as striking, was an enlightening eating experience. Finely chopped raw scallop clung together in a tight ball which was topped with a slither of smoked eel, when dipped in the sesame soy sauce I momentarily left this earth. As for meat, Mont Bar are just as well versed. Suckling lamb served with yoghurt gnocchi and aubergine was mesmeric. The lamb was tender, of course, and combined with the mint pesto was a welcome taste of home. The food at Mont Bar set the precedent for the entire experience; we had an almost flirtatious relationship with our waiter, the wine we drank was inexpensive for the quality and the ambience was informal and relaxed. If there is any establishment I urge you to visit, it is here. Away from the crowds and blissfully elegant, Mont Bar is Barcelona’s best kept secret, well, from the tourists anyway.

San Sebastian – A Pintxos Guide

San Sebastian holds the most Michelin stars per square metre of any city in Europe, only surpassed by Kyoto, Japan on a global scale. Given its size, this an impressive accolade, it clearly exudes culinary pedigree. Unfortunately, my friends and I are not financially able to visit these theatres of gastronomy. San Sabastian is, however, also famous for its numerous pintxos bars. These establishments serve small, tapas like snacks, typically served on a slice of bread, which are traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country. During my three day stay in the city I spent most of my waking hours munching my way around these bars, therefore, I see fit to give you my top five.

  1. Janssee

More a restaurant than a traditional pintxos bar, Janssee offered cold pintxos on the bar top, a menu of hot small plates and a more traditional restaurant menu. Having arrived in the city at 9pm after an exhausting train from Toulouse, we were starving. It wasn’t until 10pm that we were out prowling for food. It was during this hunt we found Janssee, a modern eating space with a lot of locals gathered around the long bar and outside the venue. We took a seat at the back of the restaurant along with a few cold pintxos from the bar. My highlight of these was the anchovies, olives and roasted red peppers all speared onto a cocktail stick. The salty fish, bitter olive and sweet pepper were a welcome combination of flavours after the rich, butter heavy French diet. From the hot small plate menu we ordered; patatas bravas, baby squid calamari, beef fillet and a cod tortilla. The beef fillet was rare, tender and clearly a well-aged cut, served with roasted red peppers and intense Spanish olive oil; simple and delicious. As a die-hard fan of patatas bravas, everything from the bland salsa to the aioli, which was lacking in garlicky gusto, was disappointing. The star of the evening was the tortilla de bacalao; being on the Atlantic, cod – or bacalao, as it is known locally – is abundant in San Sebastian and very fresh. Unlike many Spanish omelettes, the eggs in this tortilla were sloppy on the inside, just how I like them; and the cod was succulent yet flaky. It was finished with a handful of parsley and lots of black pepper. I feel guilty putting Janssee last on my list, the service was brilliant, the food was tasty but it lacked tradition and just isn’t a proper pintxos bar.

  1. Ganbara

Located in the old town, where most of the traditional pintxos bars can be found, Ganbara focuses more on its wine list than its food. I suggest you visit this particular bar to sample Txakoli or Chacolí, a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content produced in the Spanish provinces of the Basque Country. If you fancy something with a little more oomph, their house rioja was dense and chewy. As for the food, I urge you to try the deep fried white asparagus. Light, crispy batter encased a delicate asparagus stem, there was a marriage of flavours when eaten with the Txakoli wine. My favourite pintxo from this bar was the grilled aubergine slices which sandwiched minced pork cooked in a creamy tomato sauce, the whole stack was topped with melted Basque sheep milk cheese. My travelling companions disagree with me here; their favourite pintxo were the scallops and prawns doused in a slightly spicy take on marie-rose sauce. Aesthetically, this light bite was very pleasing as it was served in the pink shell of the scallop. I enjoyed the presentation of this pintxo but the flavour reminded me too much of prawn cocktail at Christmas. I would suggest visiting Ganbara at the start of a pintxos bar tour to wet your whistle with a glass of the local bubbles, or at the end of the evening to engage in some proper drinking when you have lined your stomach to soak up the booze.

  1. La Cepa

There are numerous pintxos bars on Calle de Agosto in San Sebastian’s old town, La Cepa really stands out from the rest. When you wander past you can’t help but notice the innumerable cured hams hanging from the ceiling. Pata Negra is a common name for jamόn ibérico, its direct translation means ‘black paw’, referring to the black hoof of the animal – a sign of quality – or the black Iberian breed of pig. La Cepa prides itself on serving some of Spain’s finest jamόn ibérico so this is how we started our lunch, with a plate of silver slivers of the translucent meat. The fat melted on my tongue, like butter, and didn’t taste too dissimilar, certainly the best ibérico I have eaten. From the cold selection of pintxos on the bar, we ordered smoked salmon and prawns tossed in a yoghurt dressing atop a soft slice of white baguette. Finished with a squeeze of lemon it was clean and invigorating. Next came our hot dishes. I ordered a plate of grilled octopus doused in extra virgin and a bold sprinkle of paprika. Keeping octopus simple is essential and this dish was a testament to that philosophy. My companions ordered a selection of croquettes, from which we unanimously agreed that our favourite was the creamy mussel option. This particular croquette was not potato heavy like many I have tried before; when broken open, large chunks of mussel, cooked in white wine, trickled out in a river of cream and parsley sauce. La Cepa was excellent for a light spot of lunch, the seafood plates were variable, however, what makes it place at number three on my list is the almost religious obsession they have with Spanish cured meat.

  1. Munto

Few ingredients are more quintessentially Basque than cod (bacalao), it can be found in nearly every pintxos bar in San Sebastian, in some shape or form. Munto, a small family run restaurant, was my favourite bar for cod, the sheer abundance of the fish in the bars around the city made this a difficult decision, but it takes a deserved second place. The most typical preparation of bacalao in the Basque region is ‘a la Bizkaina,’ meaning that the fish is gently fried in olive oil and dressed with a sauce of red choricero peppers, onions, garlic and tomato. With a slight variation on this classic, the chef opted to expel tomatoes from the dish altogether. The enormous cod fillet quivered at the sight of a fork and flaked apart, the sauce hit all the right notes. The sweetness of the onion played beautifully against the smoky peppers, this was my favourite of the two cod plates we ordered. However, once again, my dining companions did not agree. For them, the quickly seared fillet drizzled with a tangy chilli and citrus salsa served on a thin slice of crunchy toast was superior. One thing we did agree on, however, is that Munto’s cod pintxos, despite all the fierce competition, stood out and were truly memorable.

  1. Zeruko

A restaurant’s popularity often suggests its quality and that is certainly the case with Zeruko. Locals and tourists stand shoulder to shoulder, elbowing for position at the hectic bar to guarantee their order. Generally, this chaos is conducted with some decorum, but all social etiquette was disregarded when the most obnoxious family I have ever had to share air with, shunted their way forward. Waving wads of coloured bank notes at the staff, pushing elderly regulars and spouting uncouth noise, these mouth-breathers made the entire place uncomfortable. Rude just won’t cut it. Away from the heathens, we found sanctuary among a mountain of hot and cold plates and it was here we forgot about the poor start. We were mesmerised by the tender octopus skewers and the anchovy, olive and pickled chilli canopies. Keeping it fishy, we followed with smoked salmon and caviar toast, it was good, but caviar is wasted on me. Next came two plates, sharing a theme of quail eggs; one egg, topped a fragrant slice of blood sausage which balanced upon a slice of bread; the other egg sat on juicy pork belly. These meat dishes were seriously tasty, providing you like pork. I’ll finish my account of Zeruko with my favourite pintxos; an entire soft shell crab, dressed in a balsamic based sauce and wrapped in a tortilla. The reason Zeruko is number one on my list is simple; their dishes were a fusion of traditional Basque pintxos and more haute cuisines. It was evident that care and attention went into subtle flavour combinations that evolved typical pintxos into dishes we were unable to find in the other bars. Coupled with the beautiful presentation and the friendly, informative service, choosing a number one was simple. Without the ghastly encounter at the start of our visit, Zeruko was faultless. If you are in San Sebastian, you must visit.

Toulouse

Toulouse was the final stop on our tour of France before we entered unchartered Spanish territories, a final salute to French eating. It was here we met a good friend from university who will be joining us until the end of our trip. With a new companion on board we had much reason to celebrate and Toulouse proved to be a suitable destination to do just that.

As soon as we stepped off the train at 7pm on that Friday evening a flood of young faces swam around us. We were in student town. From afar, Toulouse appears to be a sleepy, picturesque French city, characterised by the meandering Garonne River adorned with ancient bridges. We, however, were immersed in the heart of the student section of the city, a brief walk from the historic and touristic centre, and it was anything but. Carefree undergrads spilled out of bars, a constant note of laughter hung in the air and the musky smell of cheap tobacco hovered in dense clouds in the narrow streets. Gripped by the energy, we immediately joined the hoards having dropped our bags at our apartment.

After a short walk, perhaps just a few a streets, it became clear that we would have to eat some cassoulet. Rich, meaty smells poured from every other restaurant and we struggled to move for the blackboards that blocked the cobbled pavements advertising the local dish. Exhausted, however, after a tedious train journey, we decided to enjoy cassoulet on an evening when we could really appreciate it. Instead, we opted for a burger at the funky L’atelier Burger. My steak hache was devilishly thick and pink, beef juices and egg yolk ran down my hand with every bite. Perhaps it was the delirium of starvation but in that moment it was the best burger I have ever eaten. You have got to love France, even their local burger bars make our Byron Burgers and Gourmet Burger Kitchens seem feeble. Keen to partake in the Friday festivities, we scoffed our burgers and joined the delinquents on the river bank. If you are looking for a party in Toulouse, just head for the river after dark. Armed with a few bottles of cheap wine, we immersed ourselves in the crowds of French teenagers and twenty-somethings. I don’t remember much beyond this point but I do know I have acquired a liking for French rap.

The next morning, with thick heads, we struggled to Les Halles Victor Hugo, Toulouse’s most frequented and largest weekend food market. Given our apartment had a well equipped kitchen and our finances were under scrutiny, not helped by our ongoing deposit dispute with our London landlord, I decided to cook cassoulet myself with some excellent local ingredients. I did not need to venture outside of Victor Hugo to wrangle everything required for the dish. The chicken thighs – although many would use duck – resembled that of an Olympic weight lifters’, enormous, dense and meaty, the largest I had ever seen. I bought a similarly huge length of Toulouse sausage from the jolliest of French butchers, who was thrilled to hear I was making a local dish with his produce. Opposite the butcher stood a shop selling tripe. Immersed among the bull hearts and sheep’s brains were the infamous delicacy, Andouillette, the intestine sausage I had encountered in Troyes in east central France. I felt compelled to buy some for dinner on another day. The vegetables, herbs and haricots blanc – a small butter bean – were easy to locate in the sprawling array of food vendors. With all my ingredients stashed in my trusty canvas, we ambled down to the river for lunch and devoured a fresh baguette, still soft and warm from the oven, a saucisson and some Buche de Chevre, all of which I had bought from Victor Hugo just minutes before. In the light of day, Toulouse was idyllic.

As the afternoon turned to evening and a chill crept into the air, we hurried back to our apartment to assemble what we had bought earlier in the day. To make the cassoulet, I first sealed the chicken and the sausage by briefly frying them in oil and butter on a high heat, this locks in flavours before it is added to the stew. Once golden, I removed the meat and threw in smoked lardons, when these were crispy I added a chopped onion and three cloves of garlic. When the onions were soft and translucent, the meat went back into the pan for a few minutes with a tablespoon of dried thyme. Once the flavours had infused, I added a pint of fresh chicken stock, also bought from the market, four large, chopped tomatoes and two tins of haricots blanc. Next, I turned up the heat and reduced the stew before heaving on the cast iron lid of the casserole dish and leaving the ingredients to simmer for forty minutes.

The eating was sublime. I hadn’t tasted cassoulet in years and the first mouthful bought back vivid memories of my mother’s excellent sausage stew. The salty bacon, creamy beans, garlicky sausages and tender chicken all play their part in the symphony of flavours. We ate this dish with a full-bodied bottle of red and nothing else. I would strongly recommend you conquer winter’s chill with this cassoulet recipe – found on the BBC Good Food website – or just visit the South of France.

Our final evening in France was marked with another French staple. I didn’t fall in love with Andouillette in Troyes when it was grilled and served with a thick cream and wholegrain mustard sauce. So, in order to rectify my relationship with the intestine sausage I decided to cook it myself. I removed the Andouillette from its casing and fried the insides with garlic, lardons and onion. I served the tripe on a bed of bitter greens which I had steamed over chicken stock and then gently fried them with onions and garlic. Finished with a large spoonful of Dijon mustard, I much preferred my attempt at Andouillette, however, I am not yearning for more just yet.

Predominantly occupied by students, the charming city offers far more than cheap club nights. Whether you visit its beautiful churches, indulge in the hectic nightlife or become immersed in the bustling food markets, Toulouse is a destination for every personality, well except perhaps vegetarians.

Lyon – The Stomach of France

Aptly named the stomach of France, eating in Lyon is seemingly endless. There are a mass of restaurants, bouchons, markets and traditional cuisines to be sampled. I had been warned by a French comrade from university that I would struggle to sample everything the city had to offer in just four days. With this in mind, I decided to select a few of Lyon’s most famous eating traditions and establishments to best understand the city’s rich culinary heritage.

First on the list, a typical ‘bouchon Lyonnaise.’ After a tedious coach journey from Dijon and a tiresome trudge through the city in October drizzle, my editor and I were in dire need of a hearty supper to quell our woes. Fortunately, Lyon offers plenty of institutions to cater to this exact need. Originally Inns which catered for silk workers during the 17th and 18th century, bouchons are now famous for serving up traditional Lyonnasie cuisine and a welcoming atmosphere. After a brief trawl through google recommendations one establishment kept reappearing. ‘Le Bouchon de Filles’, mentioned in the Michelin guide, upholds every standard a typical bouchon should possess. Our table was small, barely able to stand under the barrage of courses that came throughout the evening, the gentleman on my right mistook my thigh for his dates’ and I was persistently tickled by the hairy arm of my other neighbour, a Juventus fan in town for a Champions League fixture. Intimate is an understatement. Warped, ancient beams weaved across the ceiling and a strange collection of antiques lined the walls, tradition lingered in the air.

To begin, we ordered a Kir each. Before we had finished the aperitifs, our starters arrived; herring rillettes, more potato than herring, was stodgy, however, the zesty lemon against the oily fish was a pleasant start. Alongside this came two enormous salads; a lentil salad and a grated white cabbage remoulade topped with smoked lardons. These were both delicious but far too large, it was a good job I hadn’t eaten all day. Satisfied but not blown away by our entrees, our main course soon reversed this opinion. My editor ordered skirt beef fillet which was a perfect pink and it came with dauphinoise potatoes, swimming in cream and garlic. The dish was served with chimichurri sauce, a South American topping for beef, however, the parsley and vinegar flavours strangely complimented the creamy potatoes. I struggled to choose my main from the excellent selection on the menu. Eventually, I settled on a pork cheek hotpot. A medley of root vegetables, which still maintained a slight crunch, sat proud in a rich, fragrant broth – the flavour of which still lingers on my taste buds. The star, however, I will never forget. Slow cooked, for what must have been an eternity, the cheeks flaked apart and required little chewing. The flavour was a higher truth. Porky beyond description, the fat had melted away leaving delicate circles of tender meat. Served with a large tablespoon of Dijon mustard which, when dissolved in the broth, left me slurping every last drop from the bowl. No meal in France is complete without cheese. When it arrived I was already full but with one glance at the slice of brie that was trying to crawl from the plate left me determined to complete the experience. After finishing the cheese with ease, next came our desserts. I ordered a raspberry and praline cake with praline ice cream, famous in Lyon. It was soft and light but a little too sweet for me. My editor’s chocolate fondant was more to my taste, more cocoa than sugar and sprinkled with large chunks of sea salt. Our evening at ‘Bouchon de Filles’ lasted for three hours. As soon as you stepped in off the street it was as if time stood still, the ancient interior and the atmosphere of tradition captivated us and after leaving, we felt we had become a part of the history at the fantastic little eatery.

My first Bouchon experience, coupled with a Châteauneuf de Pape addled potter through the old town after supper, left me with an almost romantic connection to Lyon, despite having only been there for a few hours. This infatuation, however, was soon shattered when I went to bed. Being recent graduates, we decided to cut costs in Lyon and stay in a shared room at ‘Away Hostel’. Initially, I slipped into a wine induced slumber. At 5am, however, my bunk-buddy arrived back from an evening on the tiles. With complete abandon for every member of the temporary community he flipped on the lights, undressed and hopped into bed. When comfortably seated, he proceeded to scoff a bowl of cereal making noises I had never heard before, I can only compare them to an animal eating from a trough. His entire disregard for social etiquette leads me to believe he was raised on a farm.

Infuriated after my rude awakening, the only thing that could lift my spirits was a day of food filled fun. Luckily, that is exactly what we had planned. Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, unlike the other covered markets we had visited during our time in France, was a polished, almost corporate shopping experience. As we entered, we were met by restaurants filled with businessmen lunching and expensively dressed tourists. Given it was lunchtime and I was still feeling a little glum, we decided to join them. Eager to get amongst the stalls and shops that lay beyond the restaurants we ordered two plates to share. First came the chef’s salad; I can see why he wanted to attribute his name to the dish. Baby squid adorned a crispy romaine green salad topped with a tomato tartare and a healthy drizzle of good quality balsamic. Light, refreshing and very tasty. Opting next for quenelles Lyonnaises, what I can only describe as fish and potato dumplings, this particular quenelle was made with pike. Slightly disconcerted by the choice of fish I was surprised by the flavour. Not muddy, like most river fish seem to taste, and soaked in a creamy fish bisque I was glad to have tried this dish, another tradition in Lyon.

Energised by our light lunch we hit the market. Like all of France’s covered markets, Paul Bocuse housed boulangeries, fromageries, boucheries and poissoniers. Unlike the other markets we had visited, however, each stall was very professionally curated; well-groomed vendors clad in branded aprons were well rehearsed salesmen and what they sold was clearly at the luxury end of the spectrum. Although this sophisticated bazaar sold beautiful, quality produce I felt it lacked the character of other French markets, there is something charming about buying goods from the person who grew or made them. Regardless of the soulless stalls at Paul Bocuse the food on sale was excellent, well worth the short trip across the Rhône.

Even though I only skimmed the surface of the culinary delights Lyon has to offer, it left me eulogising. Four days of endless eating, however, was all I could stomach in the stomach of France.

Dijon – ‘Un Samedi à Dijon’

With a lot more to offer than just mustard, Dijon’s food scene presents fans of French cuisine with a plethora of options. I visited Dijon for four days, and in my opinion, Saturday was the best of these for food related activity. My day began with a mandatory coffee and pastry in our very French shuttered apartment, a stone’s throw from the city centre. Although I am usually against an early rise at the weekend, it was necessary this particular Saturday. Awoken by my coffee fix, my editor and I made our way into the morning sunshine, destined for Dijon’s infamous covered market.

Four days each week Les Halles market, designed by Dijon born Gustave Eiffel, lures in devout fans of food. Countless stalls selling typical produce of the Burgundy region exude sumptuous smells, from freshly baked bread and pastries to wafts of garlic from La Buvette du Marché, a micro-eatery in the centre of the iron-framed structure. It was here we began our journey, with a glass of Petit Chablis and six escargots, drenched in melted butter, garlic and parsley accompanied by a few slices of rustic baguette from a nearby boulanger. Regardless of the fact it was not even 11am, they were well received. To absorb the wine and garlic butter we opted for a madeleine baked by a sour-faced elderly lady; her cakes, however, were sweet, soft and an utter delight. Suitably fuelled, we ambled aimlessly about the market finding ourselves drawn to each stall. Finally, after much deliberating, we picked out some tantalising treats; fresh mussels from a smiling monger who channelled the energy of the market, a granary loaf still warm from the oven, dozens of garlic olives, a rich and gamey duck saucisson and an enormous slice of Emmental. With bountiful haul safely stashed in canvas bag, we made haste to the kitchen.

Unlike Troyes, we were blessed with a very cosy studio apartment, equipped with a small kitchenette. On the menu, Moule marinière; into the pan went shallots and garlic, finely diced and fried until the onions were translucent and soft. In a separate pot, a healthy glass of white wine, Bordeaux in this instance. Once the wine started to simmer I threw in the fresh de-bearded mussels for around five minutes. Once the molluscs had opened I swiftly drained them, careful to save the intense wine broth. Next, I added the mussels to the onion pan along with at least a cup of the mussel bisque. To finish, a large handful of chopped parsley. Not out of the pan for ten minutes, we had inhaled the mussels and soaked up the sauce with our granary loaf. It was a nice change to prepare our own food, especially with such luxury ingredients. From the market to the eating, the entire experience was a pleasure.

When, eventually, we had some more room for supper, we called upon Frederic, our host, to recommend a restaurant. Keen not to disappoint, he suggested an array of options. Overwhelmed by the choice available we asked of his favourite. Without hesitation he replied, ‘Dents de Loup’. With glad rags adorned we tottered into Dijon centre, through the rain and into the restaurant. We were met by young, smiling faces and eclectic décor. Danish light fittings hung low from the ceiling, psychedelic cloths dressed the tables and animal skins draped the seats, nothing quite matched but the clean finish, relaxed ambience and friendly service, strangely, made it work. The food, however, was far from odd. An excellent ham hock terrine was the perfect combination of meat, fat and salt, carefully balanced on a thinly sliced baguette and smeared in mustard of the region. We could only share an entrée after our day of gluttony. To follow, my editor opted for a second helping of pig. Her Côte de Porc was sumptuously tender, sheltered by a snappy crackling layer. Served with the creamiest of mascarpone potatoes, I was envious of her well-ordered main. Nevertheless, my steak bavette was nothing to be scoffed at. Attempting to ask for it ‘bleu’, I could only communicate my request by simply moo’ing at the waitress. At this she and my editor both attempted to stifle sniggers and with an affirmative nod she was gone. The beef proved to be a fantastic way to really sample some Edmond Fallot mustard, one of the major producers in Dijon. Satisfied, we opted out of dessert and instead nursed our Côte de Rhône.

Full but not finished, we staggered to Dijon’s Liberation Square. Overlooked by the grand Palais des Ducs, this was a befitting spot to sip a digestif. We ordered a Kir and a Kir Royale, made with locally produced Cassis. Usually drunk as an apéritif, these drinks were delicious but a little too sweet and sickly after our monstrous day of gorging. We did drain both glasses, and then two more, they clearly were not a step too far. As we watched the purple-lit fountains dance, which I felt cheapened the beautiful scenery, we discussed how fortunate we are. Beyond the food, which was exemplary, its history, the pace of life and friendly residents force me to recommend this city to you. Perhaps it was the euphoria of the Cassis, but in that moment Dijon was a dream.

Troyes

Spellbound by Paris, the illusion was soon shattered. When our OuiBus rolled into McArthurGlen, a shopping complex reminiscent of the terrible Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and completely out of place in its rural French setting, reality soon struck. At least an hour’s walk from central Troyes, our desired destination, we aimlessly wandered in search of a local bus to ferry us into town. Finally, after many confused discussions in broken French, we were on the bus and things were starting to look up.

A scenic ride through the beautiful Troyes town centre gave us hope that our visit would be magnificent. We soon arrived at our apartment, and after a grainy, interrupted phone call to our AirBnB host, we were met by his previous guest, a timid young lady who spoke little French or English. We muddled our way through conversation and she led us up a creaking staircase in a building that was reminiscent of a horror film set and into our rickety apartment. Spacious, clean and comfortable this place was not. A series of mimed interactions with the previous tenant soon revealed that the apartment was falling apart. No knobs on the hob controls, a dilapidated sofa and a broken flush on the toilet further dampened our spirits. Even for travelling post-graduates, used to filth and squalor, this would test us.

Steeped in history, Troyes was the capital of the Province of Champagne until the French Revolution in the late 18th Century; the cobbled streets which gently weave through the entire city and 16th century houses that somehow cling to their foundations characterise this picturesque destination. If soaking up the history that lingers in the air doesn’t feed your cultural hunger, then a visit to the Saint-Loup Museum should satisfy your appetite. Paintings reclaimed after the revolution line the walls of the fine art section. From Rubens to Watteau and a questionable portrait of Lord Byron, this provincial museum houses an impressive collection. As long as we spent ample time in the city centre, we could forget the woes that awaited us at our temporary home.

Given we were in the region, we of course tried the champagne. Midi O Halles is an excellent choice to sample some of Champagne’s best product. An extensive menu, ranging in price, lets any budget enjoy some fizz in the shadow of Église Saint Rémy, one of Troyes’ many gothic religious structures. We opted for Côte des Bars Brut and its Extra Brut cousin. The acidic bubbles of the Extra Brut popped on my palate against the backdrop of rich fruit flavours, this was my favourite.

My aim from our stay in Troyes was to immerse myself in provincial French life. With this in mind, I made a conscious effort to visit our local boulangerie, fromagerie and boucherie every day. Each morning I would bring home two freshly baked baguettes, a different deli meat or a slice of artisan cheese. The most memorable of these was the Morbier, soft and slightly elastic with an aroma of hay, this traditional cheese had a bold and unforgettable hazelnut flavour. Being France, however, shops are open for limited periods each day and some are often closed for two entire days each week. No wonder the economy is slow! These closures forced us into the local supermarché on many occasions, experiences that I surprisingly savoured. Unlike British supermarkets, the French offer superior fresh produce on an entirely different scale. I was most impressed by the bread, I actually struggled to find a processed loaf, no Hovis in sight. Similarly, the vast cheese selection included no burger cheese or dairy lee, just the occasional triangle of La Vache qui rit – Laughing Cow. Cheaper than the fromagerie and just as tasty, the Buche de Chevre we bought was amongst the best goat I have ever eaten. Our favourite element of French convenience shopping was the wine aisle. From 2010 bottles of Bordeaux to six-pack plastic bottles of Vin Blanc our local supermarket had it all. It is difficult not to slip into alcoholism here.

Left a little strapped after London and Paris, we sought traditional dishes of the region in spit-and-sawdust like establishments. When we stumbled upon the ‘Traditional Set-Menu’ at a restaurant in the city’s heart we thought we had hit the jackpot. My quiche Chaource – a local cheese –was a good start and my editor’s tuna rillettes was also tasty. For main, I opted for Andouillette, a pungent sausage made from pork intestines, my first experience of this delicacy. It was as rich as one would expect an offal sausage to be. I enjoyed the roasted potatoes in a wholegrain mustard sauce far more than the centrepiece. To continue with the almost Germanic obsession with sausage, my editor had a selection of pork products served on a bed of sauerkraut. The fermented cabbage was delicious, however, the barrage of pork was not. Underwhelmed by our mains, we couldn’t help but think that if we had spent a little more cash at a finer restaurant we would have enjoyed the traditional fare Troyes had to offer.

Regardless of the negatives, I wouldn’t discount another visit to this tranquil, rural French city. I would, however, only return with a wallet full of cash and the promise of a fine hotel.

Paris

My previous post, London, where I shared my opinion on the exclusive Chotto-Matte, may lead some readers to believe I will be critiquing high end restaurants around Europe. If that is the case, then I am afraid you will be disappointed. My evening in London was special, a celebration of my university career and a toast to future adventures. From this point on, my guide to French and Spanish eating will be just as enthralling, but without the grandeur. I am a recent graduate after all.

After a turbulent start to our morning departure, my editor finally arrived having battled with London’s rush hour traffic. By 9.30am we were speeding to France from St. Pancras. The promise of a Parisian lunch soon quelled our exceedingly high stress levels, as our locomotive hurled closer to the channel all cares were left behind.

Just after noon we arrived in Paris. Wasting no time we made haste for a sunbathed eatery at the foot of Sacré-Coeur. Being our first meal together on the continent we order as typical a French lunch one could dream up. My croque-monsieur was vast. A slice of rye bread, baked that day, housed nutty Emmental and thick-cut smoked ham, the whole structure spanned the width of my plate. I did not complain. I ate it all. My editor ordered with similar gusto. Her onion soup had a richness of its own which was enhanced by the Gruyère that slowly melted into the broth. All of this, accompanied by a carafe of Côte-du-Rhône. We were quickly beginning to understand the true meaning of the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude.

Embracing our new-found Parisian identities, a typical bistro supper felt only natural. We opened our account with a shared plate of escargots; the garlicy blast delivered in each mouthful was tremendous. Next came beef tartare and confit duck. The tartare was just as it should be, bound tight by a fresh egg and with just enough capers to add a salty hit. The duck was clearly well marinated and well cooked, the crisp, salty skin hid tender meat which fell away from the bone with the lightest prod of a fork. It was accompanied by sautéed potatoes rather than the more traditional flageolet beans, however, we had little reason to complain. With wine, the meal came to €60. Very reasonable.

On the following morning, stuffed and glutted from our first day of unremitting eating, we decided to feed our cultural appetite instead. With a morning mist still lingering in the air we took a brisk stroll around Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Oscar Wilde’s grave, which we found encased in glass to prevent literary groupies from touching it. We were disappointed by the soulless, sandstone, shrine. Frustrated, we ventured to central Paris, desperate for salvation.

When we emerged from Étienne Marcel station, it appeared our prayers had been answered. Rising from the cobbled street, dramatic iron gates marked the beginning of Rue Montorgueil, a street we dubbed the Holy Grail of our Parisian pilgrimage. Flower vendors and fruit stalls stood vibrantly side-by-side, pouring from their shopfronts and onto the street, a kaleidoscope of colour that hypnotised passers-by. Careful presentation of fresh fruit and vegetables demonstrated the passion Parisians have for their food, more artistry than mere selling. When presented with the opportunity one must visit Palais du Fruit. We bought some deliciously ripe figs to accompany our Crottin goat’s cheese, acquired from the fromagerie just next door, where the proprietors were more than happy to guide us through their eclectic collection and let us try some new cheeses. The further we wandered down Rue Montorgueil, the more absorbed we become by the energy. At lunchtime the restaurants are a hive of activity, shop owners proudly announce what is fresh and what is good on that particular day while people queue out of shops to get their hands on some of Paris’ finest fare. Unsurprisingly, the only establishment that wasn’t bustling that warm autumn lunchtime was the supermarket on Rue Montorgueil. But why would Parisians, and tourists alike, even contemplate convenience when quality is just outside? Both history and flavour seep from every crevice of this street, but these two themes marry at number 51 Rue Montorgueil. Patisserie Stohrer, founded in 1730, has been serving up canelés and Baba au Rhum for nearly three centuries. Having stood the test of time, this establishment is a testament to the quality and tradition available on this exquisite street.

During our walk from Les Halles to St Paul, afternoon sunshine rapidly gave way to a chilly eve. To escape the biting cold we hurried into a creperie, recommended by an old school friend, for sweet galettes and cidre served in mugs to warm our souls. The low lighting and close proximity of tables at Le Cidrerie du Marais added to the warm atmosphere that oozed from the cosy setting. My crepe Suzette, flambéed in front of me, was delicious. The peaches, soaked in Grand Marnier, which topped my buck-wheat galette, although very alcoholic were sweet and delicious. My editor opted for a sweet nougat ice cream and tart raspberry coulis topping which balanced beautifully. As crepes in Paris go, Le Cidrerie du Marais is up there with the best.

48 hours is definitely not enough time to sample Paris’ many culinary delights, however, we were relentless with our eating and we left very satisfied with what we found. Like so many great artists and writers before us, Paris was very difficult to leave, however, for the sake of our waistline’s it is probably a good job we did.

London

When one thinks of London, they think of cultural diversity and this is mirrored in its cuisine. Having spent three years studying in the city, my eyes have been opened to a new realm of culinary experiences. Ranging from humble Caribbean flavours in the South East, a multitude of Asian choice in the East and more refined styles in the city’s affluent West. Unfortunately, my time in London has come to an end, however, my thirst for new discoveries has not. I am to journey through France and Spain, two of Europe’s greatest culinary destinations, in order to discover new flavours, styles and eating experiences. Before I embarked on my trip, it seemed fitting to have my last supper at Chotto-Matte, a Japanese – Peruvian fusion restaurant in the West End, a concept which epitomises the city’s multiculturalism and fine dining scene.

Their website boasts, ‘an evening at Chotto-Matte will give you an experience you will want to repeat.’ Having arrived earlier than my guest, I was ushered to a bar where the space-age stools were not for sitting. From my rickety perch I observed my surroundings; garish décor consisting of black tiled floor and dim lighting. It did, however, serve as a viewing platform from which I could watch young City boys goad one another, Chinese tourists expertly scoff sushi surrounded by an abundance of designer shopping bags and businessmen with their wedding rings safely tucked in their silk-lined pockets.

Once seated, we were presented with our menu. I was simply overwhelmed by the complex literature put in front of me. The menu, however, is merely a reflection of this extravagant eatery, which climbs three floors that house a cocktail lounge, a 55-cover restaurant, a sushi bar, a Robata grill which caters to a 100-cover dining room and four kitchens. Fortunately, my guest had been before, she could therefore aid my navigation through the four page maze.

Of the many dishes we ordered, the highlight for my dining companion was the Padrόn peppers glazed in miso, an excellent evolution of the simple Spanish classic. For me, the Tentáculos de pulpo – octopus tentacles – were tender and not over powered by the teriyaki sauce that seemed to coat everything, they conjured images of childhood vacations to Greek islands where I have fond memories of watching men haul live octopus from the water. If Chotto-Matte’s Tentáculos de pulpo could evoke such personal memories they must be doing something right.

Another pleasant dish was the Asado de Tira – slow cooked beef short rib glazed in teriyaki sauce– which dissolved upon contact with my taste buds, demonstrating the quality of the meat and the drawn out cooking process. To my surprise, both the beef and the octopus were served with purple potatoes, a smooth, smoked mash that was a new flavour to me and most enjoyable. Given the size of the menu, however, the recurrence of this side dish was a little disappointing.

My favoured Peruvian element of the meal was the seabass ceviche. The citrus, coriander and chive oil that coated the fish and slightly cooked it was very refreshing. The toasted corn added a crunchy element I had never before experienced with ceviche; however, it did not compare to its Peruvian counterpart just down the road, at Ceviche.

Perhaps the only reasonably priced course was the Chotto-Matte ‘Dessert Platter’ consisting of, sorbets, Salted caramel chocolate fondant, as rich as you would expect from a good fondant, Coconut Mount Piyashiri which I can only describe as a modern, deconstructed Banoffee Pie and Brûlée de la passiόn, which was good but lacked the latter.

Nevertheless, I ended up paying £160 for two people to eat unexceptional sushi, chocolate fondant and to sit in a room that harried each of my senses relentlessly for my entire visit. If it wasn’t for the quality of my company I wouldn’t have stayed for the two hours we were there. Perhaps I stand alone in my dislike for garish décor and boisterous ambience but I am sorry Chotto-Matte, I’m not sure I would like to repeat my experience.

Introduction

First, let me introduce myself. I am Edward, a recent English Literature graduate from Goldsmiths University of London. Since graduating, I have been interning at Larder Fair, a craft food subscription start-up based in London. This is a role I have really enjoyed and it has inspired me to begin a lifelong ambition, to immerse myself in the world of all things food and write about my experiences. Coupled with my time at Larder Fair I also worked as part of a dedicated foodie team in a deli, cafe and caterers called Mimosa, who have a number of stores around London.

Now my London experience has come to an end, for the time being, I have made plans to travel through France and Spain with the sole purpose of eating, drinking, being jolly and then documenting my folly. This blog will capture my experiences eating  traditional food in a certain region or wild and quirky cuisine often scoffed at by us Brits, yet frequently eaten by our European neighbours.

I hope to learn a lot from this journey, try new things and enjoy the freedom of writing about something I feel truly passionate about. Sheila Graham, a 1950’s Hollywood columnist, was famously quoted saying, ‘food is the most primitive form of comfort.’ A sentiment I couldn’t agree with more. Internationally, food brings people together and provides immeasurable joy in people’s lives, it is both an essential and a luxury. It is for these reasons food is of such an interest to me and hopefully I can convey my passion in writing for you to enjoy too.

-Ed