Sunday, June 26, 2011

RTW Trip Regional Delicacies

My sister and I are currently completing a round-the-world trip and are nearing the end of our time in the UK and Europe. While there are not ginormous differences between British/European and Canadian cultures, we have definitely noticed some differences with regard to dining etiquette, common ingredients, and popular dishes. Below are some of the more memorable items that we have come across and tried ourselves:

Aperol Aperitif  

We had heard of Campari, or Italian bitters, prior to our travels in Italy, but we had never heard of Aperol. Aperol is a bitter, orange-flavoured aperitif that is often mixed with club soda and ice to create the Northern Italian cocktail known as Spritz. Initially, we ignored this orange drink that people were sipping every evening in the cafes of Milan. However, by the time we reached Venice a week later we noticed that practically every outdoor table was supporting a tall glass of this bright concoction. We asked a waitress why it was so popular and she explained that it is sweeter and less bitter than Campari. She also mentioned that it is affordable as a cocktail and more refreshing than wine or the (unusually awful) Italian beers regularly on offer. 

Tarte Flambee 

A note from experience: never EVER compare the Alsatian tarte flambee to a thin crust pizza made with bechamel sauce. This wood-oven baked, uber-thin pie is simple yet elegant with its toppings of lardon, onion and fromage blanc...and it is ideal beer-drinking food. We stopped by a birthday party for a friend of a friend in the Alsatian village of Roppenheim, on our way to Baden-Baden one day. The birthday boy, Julien, was very welcoming and encouraged us to stay for drinks and, of course, some flambee. We watched in anticipation as they prepared the pies in the back of the community hall, via portable wood oven. Once the pies were ready we pretty much inhaled the first round and were offered more by the generous guests. We didn't hang around for too long, however, because we wanted to see the spa town Baden-Baden before it got too late. We said goodbye to our new French friends, Julien and Marion, with a new appreciation for this northern variation of the pizza pie.  


While we had heard of this dish through Mario Batali on the Food Network, we had never tried it prior to visiting the Farmers' Market in Verona. Consisting of an entire de-boned, fire-roasted pig, this uniquely Italian pork roast is famous for its texture and spices. As per usual, slices of this roast were served to us in a panino, and the vendor was very careful to fill the bun with equal portions of crispy skin, succulent fat, and tender flesh. It sounds a bit gruesome, and the head of the pig that was on display in the stall was indeed graphic, but this dish really did smack of history and culinary passion. The vendor seemed very proud to serve the animal that he had raised and prepared, and the head of the animal simply acted as an acknowledgement of the sacrifices that were made in order to present the dish to the public.

Brined Herring

Paraphrasing my Dutch friend Maaike: "We are genetically programmed to enjoy nieuwe haring. Even if a Dutch person dislikes the concept of eating an entire pickled Herring by the tail, he will be unable to refuse due to our history with this fish." When I committed to trying an entire brined Herring, sans bun/sauce/barf bag, I was pretty sure that I would not be able to consume it without gagging or stopping after a few bites. I like seafood, and I have been eating smoked Herring since I was little, but the consistency of nieuwe haring from the Netherlands is something to be reckoned with. Slimy, super fishy, and dense, the texture of this speciality is quite different from smoked and/or canned Herring. I did gag on the first bite, but the flavour was rich and pleasant, so I took a breather and continued on. I admit that I did not finish the entire fish, but I did eat 80% of it.    

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Drambuie - Not Just for Old Men Like Myself

Drambuie isn't really popular with my generation, or with the kids out there who are smokin' the ecstasy and sippin' the sizzurp to get their rocks off. Despite its 250-year history, endorsements from Ol' Blue Eyes, and its popularity in the UK and Asia, most young (and youngish) people do not know why this liqueur shares the bar shelves with mundane favourites such as Jack Daniels and Baileys. Drambuie is a Scotch-flavoured beverage containing (of course) Scotch whisky, heather honey, lavender essence, and a few secret ingredients. If it sounds namby-pamby this is because it was, indeed, invented by a namby-pamby, and this namby-pamby's name was Prince Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie, as his milksopping friends called him).

In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie made a last-ditch attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart throne in the UK. Traveling to Scotland from France, where his family had been living in exile, the Young Pretender managed to organize a strong albeit small army composed of freedom-fighting Highlanders, Catholics, and anti-Parliamentarian soldiers. Not surprisingly, Bonnie Prince Charlie was eventually defeated by the English Protestant army and fled across the Highlands towards the Atlantic in an attempt to make it back to France. During this time, he stayed with the MacKinnon clan on the Isle of Skye for several weeks. Destitute yet grateful, Charles is said to have demonstrated his appreciation by giving the MacKinnon family the recipe of his favourite beverage. Legend claims that this recipe stayed in the family throughout the 1700s, until the liqueur was later produced by a hotel on Skye. The first documented connection between Skye and Drambuie (in its current form) relates to the island's Broadford Hotel, the proprietor of which took out a patent in London on April 24, 1893 to manufacture a drink known as Drambuie

As a single malt fan, I like Drambuie when I am in the mood for a dessert liqueur or a refreshing drink. I love Drambuie Rickeys (a highball with soda water and lime) when it is warm, and I also enjoy a Drambuie on the rocks after dinner. As hinted to above, Frank Sinatra also loved Drambuie, and preferred it in the form of a Rusty Nail, which consists of blended Scotch, Drambuie, and soda water. Note: do not mix Drambuie with a single malt Scotch!

So if you have never tried Drambuie and think it is just an "old man" drink, give it a shot (pun intended). And as you are buttoning up your cardigan, lighting your pipe, getting your crossword puzzle ready, thinking about how all young people are ignorant and obnoxious, and bringing that sweet sweet Drambuie to your lips, remember the Gaelic saying that has been on the bottle for over one hundred years: cuimhnich an tabhartas orionnsa; that is, remember the gift of the prince

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