Mexico City – Your Food and Culture Guide

I know, I know. Some of you are angered by that title.

No avocados?! How could I go to Mexico and not eat copious amounts of avocados?!

You totally should! My point is there’s more to Mexico City than guacamole. I got to explore this recently when the Le Meridien Mexico City invited me to come shadow the brand’s James Beard award-winning pastry chef, Johnny Iuzzini. He would be visiting from Brooklyn, searching the city for inspiration for his locally-inspired Le Meridien eclair recipe, part of Le Meridien’s Eclair Diaries series. Also in tow was world-renowned coffee connoisseur Esther Maasdam, in charge of training Le Meridien’s food and beverage staff on the art of coffee making and turning them all into Master Baristas (a program by Le Meridien).

Basically, I was in good hands to explore cuisine, coffee and culture in Mexico City.

The Stay Experience

The first thing I noticed when entering the Le Meridien Mexico City was the festive holiday decor (my stay was in December). A winding staircase allowed for fun shots of a giant Christmas tree accented by bulbous lights, not to mention a holiday tree crafted from books near the open bar.

My 13th floor room was even more spectacular, with aerial city views, free Wi-Fi, a full mini bar, unique Malin + Goetz bath products (cilantro conditioner, anyone?), and a big comfortable bed showcasing a plush robe which I lived in for my stay. Being a Starwood rewards member — Starwood owns Le Meridien — I also got a free drink in the bar, which I sipped in the deep soaking tub while reading a book (a simple luxury I never seem to have the time for at home).

Expert Tip: Signing up for loyalty programs is one of many ways to save money and earn travel points. Here are 34 more.

LE MÉRIDIEN MEXICO CITY MOMENTS

A Delectable Mission: Mexico City Market Exploration

I didn’t spend all my time in the hotel room, though. Remember, one reason I was there was to explore Mexico City flavors with Chef Iuzzini, and see how the destination influenced his latest eclair recipe.

The eclair is a traditional French pastry typically filled with chocolate or fresh cream and gowned in chocolate icing; until Iuzzini gets his creative hands on it. We headed to Central de Abasto, the world’s largest wholesale market with over 2,000 vendors and 500,000 visitors per day, to look for ingredients and inspiration. We also brought along husband and wife chef duo Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias of Mexico City’s Jaso Restaurant to help give context to what we were looking at and negotiate with vendors.

Love Mexican cuisine? Check out these amazing #food & drink experiences in #Mexico City. CLICK TO TWEET

Still, it was up to Iuzzini to craft a dessert that provides guests with a traditional taste of Mexico that’s also atypical. Explained Iuzzini on the way to the market, “Picture a traveler that comes to the Le Meridien and wants to experience all the flavors and textures of Mexico without leaving the hotel. I also want to get away from the typical ingredients like avocado. Maybe we can’t get every Mexican state in the eclair, but maybe five very special ingredients, including vegetables and spices.”

As we wandered through the market’s 16 kilometers of walking areas, we smelled, touched and tasted an array of ingredients. These ranged from tangy Oaxaca cheese to produce I’d never heard of before, like zapote negro and mamey sapote. There were also giant barrels of mole powders from various regions, which Chef Iuzzini thought would work well on the shell, the spice tamed by a cooling fruit filling. Each time our senses interacted with a new local ingredient, Iuzzini scribbled into his notebook like a hungry mad scientist.

CHEF JOHNNY IUZZINI HAVING A COCONUT BREAK AT CENTRAL DE ABASTO

A Traditional Mexican Meal

After four hours exploring the market, I couldn’t wait to see what Iuzzini had come up with, though the final recipe wouldn’t be unveiled for a few days. In the meantime, we had hungry stomachs to fill. And so we headed to a late lunch/early dinner at Restaurante Nicos. Sonia described the Claverai neighborhood venue as “casual, but the food is extraordinary,” while Jared commented that “it’s all in the sauce, and Nicos has great sauce”.

As soon as our waiter came over to prepare our table-side guacamole — okay, so there’s a few avocados in this travelogue —I was immediately hooked. And my palate’s happiness only continued with dishes like river fish steamed in a corn husk followed by tender barbecue rabbit. There was also delectable plates of organic pork and organic turkey — each topped with different mole sauces. I’ve had mole before, though never realized you could travel Mexico through the palate sampling all the regional moles.

A DELICIOUS LATE LUNCH AT RESTAURANTE NICOS

Desserts ranged from the traditional Mexican Buñuelos to a quirkier bowl of popcorn gowned in pumpkin gelato and zapote negro sauce, spiced with anise, mandarin and cinnamon. Table-side Mexican coffee was the perfect ending, and watching our server use his entire body to stir the natural cane sugar-laced java in a clay pot was like seeing a Broadway show. Like mole, the spices added depend on the Mexican region you’re in, ranging from sugar and cinnamon to cacao.

I went to bed fat and happy.

Exploring Mexico City Culture & Coffee

The next day, while Iuzzini was holed up in the kitchen to experiment, I met up with the lovely Esther Maasdam, Le Méridien’s coffee connoisseur extraordinaire visiting from the Netherlands. Together we spent the day partaking in Le Meridien’s Destination Unlocked program. In each city they operate in, Le Méridien partners with a local cultural institution to provide free entry to their guests.

In Mexico City that partner is Museo Tamayo, located within the expansive Chapultepec Park. The leafy green attraction is home to picnicking, paddle boating, splash pads, cycle paths, a free botanical garden, outdoor movies and really interesting al fresco cultural performances. I mean, check out this Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) performance below, which includes grown men falling from a 30-meter pole and flying through the air attached to bungee cords. A fifth man stays at the top playing the flute and drum.

DANZA DE LOS VOLADORES

The park is also home to 17 museums and galleries, including the Museo Tamayo contemporary art museum. Here art ranges from Oaxaca-born Rufino Tamayo’s well-known painting of watermelons (an ode to his childhood selling fruit) to multi-media works and even a peaceful vacant pink room with bird sounds playing.

While I loved perusing the pieces, my favorite experience was playing on the modern outdoor playground.

Gringo Tip: Adults are apparently not supposed to climb the jungle gym below, as was shouted to me in Spanish by a security guard.

CLIMBING MUSEO TAMAYO’S “JUNGLE GYM”

Actually, my favorite museum experience may have been lunch at their eatery, Restaurante Tamayo. While the previous day introduced me to traditional Mexican cuisine, this exquisite venue provided a modern take. A few playful dishes on the menu included hibiscus flower and cream cheese tacos, chicken stuffed with cuitlacoche and goat cheese over pinto beans, and a ribeye with a four chilies crust.

Oh, and I can’t forget the huauzontle cakes — batter fried huazontle (like quinoa) with Chihuahua cheese in a black Oaxaca mole sauce and green tomatillo salsa. The dish was also laced with chipilin, an edible legume typically used as a spice. I saw huauzontle cakes on a few menus in Mexico City, so if you see it during your stay definitely order it.

RESTAURANTE TAMAYO.

Within the park we also visited Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), the very place where Mexico City started. If you’re into history make sure to hire a guide to really understand what you’re looking at as you tour the many 19th-century furnished rooms of Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Empress Carlota. Here you’ll also get excellent aerial views of the city from 2,325 meters (7,628 feet) above sea level.

An Elevated Coffee Break

When we finished with the park it was 3pm, and neither Esther nor I had had a coffee since 8am. For me this wasn’t ideal, but for Esther this was plain madness. I mean, the girl lived for coffee. And because I was with the queen of coffee we weren’t settling for just any java.

That day we’d learned an amazing local tip. Some of you may have heard of Pujol, a trendy restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood with a waiting list of over six months. Getting into this eatery was Esther’s #1 goal in Mexico City, though she couldn’t land a reservation; however, what we could do was head to Eno Petrarca, their attached counter culture coffee shop.

SIPPING JAVA CONCOCTIONS AT ENO PETRARCA

If I didn’t think Esther was a celebrity before, the fact that she was recognized from her Facebook page by the barista in Eno Petrarca — who came up to our table and eagerly asked her to do an impromptu guest barista session — proved it. We were also provided a few extra speciality coffee beverages along with our latte art-adorned orders. The most interesting drink was an iced Infusion Fria de Cafe with almond milk and lemon. They also offered everything from frozen lattes to atole with amaranto, a boiled Mexican drink featuring  milk, amaranth seeds, cinnamon and sugar.

Wandering Mexico City’s Roma Neighborhood

With caffeine flowing through our veins, we happily headed to Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood, located next to the also trendy neighborhoods of Juárez (where the Le Méridien is located) and Condesa. In Roma, we simply wandered without a plan, making fun and delicious discoveries along the way.

ARCHITECTURE IN MEXICO CITY’S ROMA NEIGHBORHOOD

A few of our favorites stops included:

  • Libreria Atico: A cozy weathered store that looks like a professor’s dusty attic. A cute black cat roamed the venue as we perused everything from The History of Man in comic book form to business help books (in Spanish). Prices ranged from about 15-60 pesos (~$0.75 to $3 USD).
  • Aurora: I’m obsessed with single spirit focused bars, and Aurora offers a ultimate gin experience. Pair your gin cocktail with a tasty pizza and live music.
  • Folk Diseno Artesenal: This fun artisan market allowed us to practice our Spanish and learn about Mexican products from mescal and coffee to hand-woven ponchos.
  • Alvaro Obregon & Insurgentes Sur Cross Streets: There’s an entire block off these cross streets (on Alvaro Obregon) showcasing numerous street vendors and locals eating at makeshift sidewalk bars. Local Tip: Esther and I were shown the proper way to eat a street stall taco. You’ll get double shells to catch any spillage, and as you bite you should stick your butt out to avoid splatter on your shirt. If you can picture a high class Brit drinking a cup of tea, you should also keep your pinky out to maneuver the taco as it gets smaller.

STREET FOOD IN ROMA

  • Bizarro Cafe: We didn’t drink at this fun-looking dive bar, but one of the bartenders noticed us gringos and excitedly pulled us inside to show us the decor. The table tops and walls are covered in classic rock posters, while the wall behind the live music stage showcases fake skulls.
  • Licoreria Limantour: After consulting with a number of Esther’s local contacts in the food and beverage industry about where to go for cocktails, it was an unanimous Limantour. Aside for upscale restaurants, Mexico City apparently doesn’t have many craft cocktail bars, though this place is a standout. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, almost every drink on the menu comes with a beautiful photo and recipe card. You can also order a custom creation. Gringo Tip: Don’t use the word “caliente” to mean “spicy” or you’ll be given something akin to a hot toddy. Lesson learned.

A “VICUNA” COCKTAIL AT LICORERIA LIMANTOUR

  • La Bodega: This restaurant is actually in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, though from Limantour we walked there in 15 minutes. Along with fantastic Mexican food and superior service, the super quirky decor turned the eatery into a maze of fun exploration. What To Get: Anything with mole Poblano sauce, as well as any of the seafood. The “camarones gigantes” are not lying when they say gigantic shrimp! Afterwards, dance it off to their live music.

Turning Food & Drink Into Art, Literally

On my final day in Mexico City, Chef Iuzzini unveiled his final Mexico City eclair recipe.

Explaining the concept, he said, “You don’t have to speak the same language to understand the food. All the flavors in the eclair will be those you understand, but the combination is what makes it different. These ingredients were all unfamiliar to me, so I experimented with different combinations and forms. I wanted to deliver something unexpected, and you may think I’m a bit loco with this recipe.”

What Iuzzini said next did sound loco, but also absolutely delicious. Picture this: A hollow Pate a Choux dough base flavored with Oaxaca mole powder, which gets injected with a filling of mamey and Veracruz vanilla, then gowned in a tamarind and lime glaze. This is garnished with sweet and crunchy crystallized huitlacoche, creamy red banana, and a Mexican-inspired peanut brittle caramelized with local piloncillo sugar and spiced with mole powder.

Not only is the unexpected flavor combination a work of art, but so is the presentation. I love a dessert that’s so beautiful you feel bad eating it (but hey, that’s what Instagram is for).

Washing down the sweet masterpiece was an equally artistic latte made by Esther. Not surprisingly, her grandfather was an artist, so she grew up drawing and painting. Since she wanted to practically apply her creative skills, she was educated in graphic design; but when she became tired of sitting behind a computer, Esther decided to apply her skills to her passion for coffee through latte art.

ESTHER’S AMAZING LATTE ART

Not only can Esther time your espresso and craft your foam to perfection, but she can make intricate designs — sometimes even using food coloring — to bring the drink to life. While visiting the Le Méridien Mexico City, she used local inspiration to etch cactuses, wrestling masks and even the national emblem onto delicious java drinks.

A foodie guide to exploring #Mexico City & local #culture – check it out! CLICK TO TWEET

Farewell For Now; But I’ll Be Back

I left for the airport with tight pants, as well as a desire to return. By hanging out with Chef Iuzzini and Esther Massdam in Mexico City, I was able to explore cuisine from the traditional to the modern, and really see how local culture can influence what we eat and drink.

If you enjoy culinary and cultural travel, Mexico City should be on your list. Sure, there are safety issues to think about (more on that below), but it’s not as dangerous as it once was. And if you use common sense you can have a really great time; on a budget, too, as even a ribeye at a nicer place like Restaurante Tamayo costs only $15 (and that’s on the high end of what you’ll pay for food!).

PINK TAXIS FOR WOMEN IN MEXICO CITY

Logistics:

Le Meridien: Starting rate is $120 per night.

Currency: Mexico Peso. As of January 2017 the exchange rate was about $1 USD to $20.74 Pesos.

Airport Transfers To/From The City Center: Along with taxis, you can book a round-trip airport shuttle for $19.99 (recommended). There’s also a metro station at the airport, though this only makes sense if you’re traveling with little luggage.

Airport Tips:

  • Coming in, customs lines can be very long (it took me over an hour). Just be patient and bring a book. Also, do not lose your customs card or you’ll have to pay $42. Your airline will collect this when leaving Mexico.
  • Leaving was much quicker — you don’t even need to take off your shoes at security. To maximize comfort and budget, I highly recommend Priority Pass (10% off with this link). Even at the lowest tier, you’ll pay $99 per year and $29 per lounge visit (plus $29 for a guest if you have one) to have access to Wi-Fi, free food and booze, comfortable seating, showers and sometimes even spa treatments. It’s accepted at over 1,000 airports around the world, so you won’t have any issues finding a lounge that accepts your pass.

Public Transport: Public transport in Mexico City isn’t the best, and Mexico City is huge and spread out. Other than renting a car or hiring a driver guide (you can contact the tourism board for this), Mexico City has Uber (get a free ride with this link) and a bike share program called EcoBici (90 Pesos/~$4.42 USD per day; here’s a map)

Of course, you can also walk. Neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Juaraz, the neighborhood of Le Méridien Mexico City, are easy to explore on foot.

Safety (For Women): Along with recommended safety gear like a ROBOCOPP Personal Alarm ($6 with code “JOURNEY10”) and Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments, Mexico City has a number of women’s safety initiatives in place. There are myriad pink taxis for ladies driving the city, women-only cars on the subways and front seats on buses reserved for women, disabled and seniors. My guide also told me that men with feminist ideals wear pink to show women their support.

~ By New York city based award-winning travel blogger, Jessica Festa. Find her at Jessie on a JourneyFacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest

When in Naples – EAT!

In my opinion, there is nothing to do in Naples except eat! Surely, its a historic city with lots of UNESCO world heritage sites and beautiful views, but the sole reason to come here is for the food. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and many other dishes. It is the former capital of Italy and is largely responsible for all things we know of as “Italian cuisine” in most of the world.

On a Tuesday morning, my guide, Alberto from Context Travel and I set out on a food tour of the historic area. We start at Duomo di Napoli (Naples Cathedral) and see the remnants of Saint Januarius inside this spectacular 14th century construction. We walk down the famous Via dei Tribunali, making small detours to see narrow alleys with towering residences on both sides. During the 4-hour long eating spree, we take intermissions between courses to step into a church or a monastery, look at local crafts, and discuss more of – you know what – Italian food!

Here are some highlights of my Food Tour in Naples with Context Travel…

Sfogliatelle is a traditional Neapolitan pastry with thick flaky layers of dough filled with lightly whipped ricotta and a little powdered sugar dusted on top. There is also a brioche version of this. It’s best eaten when warm out of the oven, and locals enjoy it for breakfast or afternoon snack.

Sfogliatelle naplesBaba au Rhum is a fluffy sponge cake made with eggs, milk and butter, and soaked in rum. It is recognizable by its shape, a 2-inch cylinder. You can also find cream filled Baba at pastry shops across Naples. It is said that this pastry originated from France, but has Polish roots as well.

baba naples

Italians are passionate about their coffee. When I ordered a cappuccino at 10am, Alberto looked at me in horror. “If you want to drink coffee during the day, it has to be an espresso” he explained. Though coffee is not grown in Italy, they brew it the Italian way, with lots of ground coffee and little water, for a very short time (40 seconds). As a result, the coffee is dense but has less caffeine. You can add sugar, but there’s no room for milk in that tiny Italian espresso cup.

naples pizza fritta

Next we eat the local street food, Pizza Fritta. This light and fluffy deep fried pizza dough almost reminds me of sopapilla from New Mexico. It is topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. Just the perfect snack before lunch!

There is also a stuffed version of the Pizza Fritta which basically looks like a Calzone. Ricotta cheese, salami and tomato sauce are the only ingredients that are put inside, sealed and deep fried in hot oil. It never got popular outside Naples but out here it is a favorite street snack.

naples pizza frittaArancini are my favorite Italian appetizers. These fried risotto balls are stuffed with ragù (meat and tomato sauce), mozzarella, and peas, though there are other variations with mushrooms, eggplants, or pistachios as well.  It can be pretty much made with whatever leftover ingredients you may have. Note ragu with pasta is a special Sunday meal. The ladies of the house will start to cook ragu 24 hours in advance, simmering the tomatoes on very low heat till the sauce is thick and flavorful.

Being in southern Italy, cheese, olives, and cured meats are staples. Alberto took me to a speciality grocery store where locals shop for these products. Here I learned that if you can squeeze out milk from Buffalo Mozzarella with the tip of a fork, it means that its fresh. He recommends that Buffalo Mozzarella should be eaten within 24 hours, and should never be used for cooking pizza. We also taste Goat Ricotta, which is used to make pastries, and Smoked and Aged Provolone perfect for snacking with wine.

buffalo mozzarella naplesFritto Misto are also popular street foods in Naples. You can often see display windows full of fried snacks including fried zucchini, eggplant, calamari, shrimp, potato croquettes, or whatever is in season. You would order it by Copa (paper cones) and snack on it with a glass of beer or aperitif.

Next, we head to O Cerriglio – Trattoria Cucina Napoletana to try our hands on making pizza. The chef gives me a brief demo and makes it look so easy, but it isn’t! I have made pizza before, but the extremely thin dough of Neapolitan Pizza Margarita needs some skills to stretch, lift, and twist without burning or forming holes. We stretch the dough with only our fingers (no roller), spread 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce, few slices of fior di latte mozzarella (cow’s milk mozzarella), sprinkle grated parmesan cheese and top with fresh basil leaves. It takes only a minute to make the pizza and another 45 seconds to bake it in this very hot brick oven reaching temperatures of 700-800F. This is why the pizza has a crunchy crust and a soft center.

pizza cooking class naples

Alberto was a wonderful guide and showed me a lot of hidden gems in the historic area that I didn’t even knew excited, even though I had been through those streets few times before. He is available for walking food tours in group sizes 1-6 booked through Context Travel.

Read more about the history of pizza.

If you have another Neapolitan speciality dish to share, leave a comment below.

Walking Food Tour of Istanbul

Istanbul is the perfect destination for food lovers. Every street corner catches your attention as interesting smells and sights promise something exciting. Food, in Turkey, is street performance, an art show, an attraction – not just for feeding your belly. You will see that people are eating all the time, everywhere. There are no set times of the day to enjoy a good meal, a Turkish coffee, honey laden sweets, or a little pizza.

With thousands of eateries featuring so many different kinds of dishes, it is easy to get lost in the bazaars. So I made a good decision of booking a Food Tour with  Turkish Flavours on my first day in Istanbul. I met Ms Taciser, a knowledgeable and charming Turkish lady, in front of the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Market) at 9:30am. She gave a briefing about what was to come – about 5 hours of walking through the Spice Market, a ferry to Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, tasting at the famous street Eminönü and historical Kadıköy market, followed by an Anatolian lunch. Little did I know, we are about to embark on a 35 COURSE journey, eating our way through some of the best eateries in Istanbul.

Here are some of the highlights of our culinary walking tour of Istanbul…

At the entrance to the Spice Market, are vendors selling all of your daily grocery needs, the first one being cheese. Turkish people eat many different kinds of cow and sheep’s milk cheese (known as peynir) for breakfast, as appetizers, and in cooking. Read introduction to Turkish cheese for more details.

sheep and goat cheese

In Turkey, table olives are consumed in large quantities, raw, cooked, preserved, olive oil, olive soap, etc. Turkey is noted for its wealth of varieties—over 50 in all. The most common Turkish olives are grown in the Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Southeast Anatolia regions. The key varieties are the Memeli, Donat, Ismir Sofralik, Ayvalik, Ekiste, Elebi, Erkence, Gemlik, Memecik, Trilya, and Uslu.

spice market Istanbul

Stores filled with moulds of fresh spices are also abundant. You can find practically any spice on the planet here, but most Turkish households don’t use a lot for cooking. The commonly found Turkish spices include oregano, red pepper, paprika, dried mint, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, sumac, sesame seeds and black cumin (nigella) seeds.

Stop for dry fruits, coffee, Turkish sweets and apple tea, before making your way out of the spice bazaar.

food tour nuts

I tried for the first time – fried mussels with tarator (midye tava), a popular street food made with fresh mussels. This is one of the rare seafood dishes eaten in Istanbul, aside from the “fish-only” restaurants.

fried mussels

This stop for Turkish pizza (known as pide) is worth alone the entire tour! The flatbread stuffed with ground beef, lamb or cheese and spices is satisfying with a glass of tea at breakfast, and Ayran (yogurt drink) at lunch. Go to the stall around lunchtime and smell the fresh dough rising from the oven.

pizza Istanbul

The sweet shop, Gazianstep, located next to the pizza place, is hard to pass by without a stare. Honey soaked tulumba, fresh kadayif, and a dozen kinds of baklava, are just a few items the bakers prepare each morning. sweet shop Istanbul

Then we will take a ferry to Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul from Eminönü, the famous shopping street in Istanbul. There were good opportunities for taking photos of vendors selling fresh fish, peddlers making coffee over charcoal, and dried spices hanging like beads. We made about 15 more stops as we strolled through the busy markets and historic sites. Finally, we stopped for lunch at the New York Times acclaimed Ciya restaurant in Kadıköy market. Here we met the owner/chef and tasted about 10 more dishes! (Click here to read more on that).

istanbul coffee

 

This walking food tour was unlike any other I have done before. It gave a very good overview of Turkish cuisine, exposing me to many different kinds of dishes. My culinary knowledge expanded so well this day, that I knew exactly what to order during the rest of my stay in Turkey. I was even able to help other travelers make choices at dinnertime!

The Taste Istanbul Food tours starts at 9:30 am and ends around 2:30 pm. Cost is $125 per person, which includes continuous tastings, English speaking guide, round trip ferry tickets, and a hearty lunch. Do not plan to eat before or after the tour!

~ This tour was sponsored by Turkish Flavours. 

Taste of TCI Food Tour

Research shows that more than half the population choose their desired destination for vacation based on the food of that place. Now, before coming to the islands of Turks and Caicos, I knew very little about the island’s cuisine. My limited knowledge assumed that the food would be similar to other Caribbean islands, which mostly consists of locally available resources, such as tropical fruits, fresh seafood, rice, and some veggies.

During my stay in Providenciales, the largest commercially developed island, I booked a Taste of TCI Food Tour online. Mrs. Sheniqua, the proprietor of the tour company,  picked me up from my hotel at 11am, and we were off to conquest some of the culinary treasures of the island.

Sheniqua gave me an overview of the day, which restaurants will we be going to, and what we will be tasting there. As we drove around the island, she also pointed out sites of important significance, such as the original transportation sailboats, and ground for Thursday Fish Fry.

creamy conch chowder TCI
Creamy Conch Chowder

Our first stop is a small casual restart, Fresh Catch, centrally located at the Salt Mills Plaza. Sheniqua claims this is her favorite place for creamy conch chowder. The art to cooking conch is to harvest it, and eat it right away, Weather you are making conch salad, conch fritters or conch chowder, it will taste more flavorful and less rubbery. Fresh Catch also offers a Wednesday night seafood buffet for only $30 per person.

Next stop was Mr Grouper, who has received many awards for the best fish in town. The grouper we had was fried and had a nice crisp from the flour, bread crumbs and spices. It was served with baked macaroni and cheese pie, which was flavored with onions, spices, and light cheese, unlike its American counterpart.

Mr Grouper TCI food
Mr Grouper winner of “Best Fish & Best Conch”

Bendiciones near the airport was a Dominican Shack serving both Dominican and TCI dishes. We tried the chopped lobster in bell peppers, with okra rice, and fresh salad. The ambiance was not much, but the food made from the heart.

minced lobster
Minced Lobster with Okra Rice

Walking into Bugaloos island restaurant, I was greeted by Mr. Berlie “Bugaloo” Williams, himself standing in the garden. He was elderly, and walked with a stick, but he still held his fort everyday. Bugaloo started catching conch and made his truck into a Conch Shack. The concept caught on and he became well known all over the island. Now, he has a funky establishment, right at the waters edge. Guests come in to soak their feet in crystal clear waters, walk on the soft sandy beaches, grab a Laval Flow or Rum Punch, and munch away on the most talked about conch platter on the island.

Mr Bugaloos and Sheniqua from Taste of TCI Food Tour
Mr Bugaloos and Sheniqua from Taste of TCI Food Tour
Outdoor Seating at Bugaloos Restaurant
Outdoor Seating at Bugaloos Restaurant

Our last stop was for drinks and dessert. Flavors of the Turks and Caicos (aka FOTTAC) is a great place to buy locally made rums, beers, cakes, hot sauces, jams, teas and more. We do a little rum tasting of Bambarra Coconut Rum, 2 Year Old Silver Rum, and 8 Year Old Reserve Rum. I end up taking a bottle of the Reserve Rum, and 4 boxes of the most delicious Bambarra Chocolate Rum Cakes homes. They didn’t last very long!

Rum Tasting at FOTTAC
Rum Tasting at FOTTAC

Food tours are an educational and entertaining way to get to know the history and culture of the destination. I recommend doing the tour during your first or second day, so that you gain familiarity with the local dishes and restaurants. Then you will know exactly what to order during the rest of your stay.

The Taste of TCI Food Tour is a 3 hour walking, riding food tour visiting 5 locations that are native Turks & Caicos Islanders favorite spots to enjoy great food. Tickets are $99 per adult and advanced booking is required. The mix of restaurants picks changes regularly based on Sheniqua’s latest finds.

~ This tour was sponsored by Taste of TCI Food Tour

Discover Artisans and Food Traditions in Le Marche, Italy

Many visitors to Italy have enjoyed the wonders of Tuscany, but relatively few have discovered and experienced the unique charms of neighboring Le Marche.

Le Marche is the region in east-central Italy nestled between Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. Our destination is the bustling village of Mercatello sul Metauro, located at the foot of the Tuscan-Umbrian- Apennine mountains, only a couple of hours east of Florence.

Luisa Donati invites you to share a week with her at Palazzo Donati, her family’s home, which dates to the 1700s. Situated on the main square of Mercatello sul Metauro, Palazzo Donati is a private home upgraded with modern amenities.

Luisa opens the doors to her family’s Palazzo and invites you to enter the peace and authenticity of a by-gone time. You’ll discover and experience a way of life which preserves the grace and culture of the Renaissance, in a small town largely undiscovered by tourists.

Here are some of Luisa’s favorite things that she will share with you. . .

  • Tasting of Le Marche wines
  • Renaissance ceramics in Urbania
  • Lunch at Isabella’s organic farm, “La Pieve del Colle” with a view of the landscape depicted in Piero della Francesca’s painting “I Trionfi”
  • Cooking class using local wild herbs and flowers
  • Hands-on class in the traditional art of fabric painting
  • Clara, Princess of Carpegna, hosts a private tour of her palace
  • Feast prepared by members of the Accademia del Padlot, a fraternity of nine men dedicated to food preparation, wine tasting, and good times
  • Tour of the stunning underground caves at Grotte di Frasassi
  • Shopping for foodstuffs at the market followed by cooking class taught by a local mama
  • Visit to the paper-making museum in Fabriano and a workshop on the ancient craft of making paper
  • Plenty of free time to shop, meander, and day-dream

To book, contact Luisa Donati:  info@palazzodonati.com; Skype: luisadonats; Mobile +393394016247 to inquire about this tour.  

 

 

10 Things You Must Eat at Your Tuscan Villa

Last week I wrote about staying at a Tuscan Villa in Italy where I enjoyed very authentic meals using ingredients that were grown on the farm or sourced from nearby villages. During the one week stay, I was able to get a glimpse of what Italians eat and the proper etiquettes to eat them. I was also dining with the locals during all of the meals, so it was easy to verify the technique of cooking and eating these dishes. Some of the recipes are available on Go Eat Give.

1. Prosciutto and Cheese: A Tuscan meal starts with Salumi and cheese platter. An appertivo cocktail, prosecco or Rose wine accompanies it. Besides your table cheese, you can also serve rich cream of pecorino and sheep cheese from Sardinia.

cheese tasting Italy

2. Raw Fava: Whole raw Fava beans are generally stacked in the middle of the table for everyone to share. You are suppose to grab a few strings, peel them, dip the beans in a little salt, and eat with bread and cheese. The beans are hard and dry so much of the flavor comes from the salt.

fava beans with salt

3. Olive Oil: We always had generous portions of salad, generally served toward the end of the meal. This simple salad of rugola (arugula), black olives, chopped tomatoes, red bell peppers and shaved pecorino cheese is dressed with Montestigliano brand olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. All the olives are grown and pressed at the farm, and has a spicy sharp flavor. I highly recommend doing an olive oil tasting so you can distinguish the color, fragrance and taste of different kinds of olive oil.

Mediterranean salad

4. Spianata: Hearty foccacia is cooked in the oven with a hint of salt, rosemary and olive oil. I especially liked Spianata al forno a legna con ciccioli di maiale (flat bread with pork fat made in a wood oven) which had a flaky buttery texture.

Spianata al forno

5. Farro Salad: Grains are a big part of the Italian diet. The farms grow and harvest wheat, faro, arborio and store them for year round consumption. Farro salad with roasted red peppers,  chopped parsley and olive oil served on a baby bib lettuce makes for a visually appealing yet healthy side dish.

farro

6. Conchiglie al Forno: During one of the al fresco lunches, I had baked conchilie pasta al forno, pasta shells cooked with zucchini and benchémel sauce, sprinkled with pecorino cheese and baked in the oven till light brown. It was garnished with fresh basil leaves and tasted divine!

Conchiglie

7. Pinolata Senesce: For Easter dinner, the family prepared a special treat – pinolata senesce or Tuscan pine nut cake from Siena. The creamy cake had a light flaky crust and soft jam center. It was dusted with powdered sugar and lots of toasted pine nuts.

Pinolata Senesce

8. Torta Budino al Cioccolato: This was not your ordinary chocolate cake, as the bottom was a little soggy and bursted with strong dark chocolate and orange flavors. I pleaded the chef to tell me what was her secret ingredient – vanilla, orange liquor, rum? Find out for yourself as she grudgingly shared her recipe.

Torta Budino al Cioccolato

9. Crostata: I ate a lot of crostatas during my week in Tuscany. A crostata is an Italian cross between a tart and a pie. It is a rustic pastry made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs and filled with  whatever fruits that are available in the season. Apricot jams, apples, plums, elderberries, tomatoes and nuts are some of the inspiring flavors for the crostata. It was served for breakfast, dessert and snacks, but I’m not complaining!

Crostata

10. Cantucci: Otherwise know as almond biscotti or Italian cookies, the only way to eat them is by dipping in Vin Santo dessert wine. The hard biscotti become moist and sweet after a few seconds in the late-harvest wine. It melts in your mouth with a delicious alcohol kick to it. Please do not dip cantucci in coffee or order a cappuccino after a meal as this is a no-no in Italian culture!

CantucciI went for a food tour of Tuscany as a guest of the Donati family. You can book a similar trip directly through Luisa Donati. Rent one of the villas located on the family farm, Montestigliano. During your stay, visit the bio gas station, do a blind olive oil tasting, talk to local producers, go Truffle hunting, learn to make pasta, have a home cook prepare your meals, and dine with the locals.

Read more about my travels in Italy.

Eating and Drinking with the Padlots

Picture my surprise when I was told that a group of 9 Italian men were coming over to cook dinner for us (a group of journalists) in Italy! The group is called Accademia del Padlot meaning the academy of “a giant ladle that is used to pour wine.” Founded in 1996, a group of men in the village of Mercatello sul Metauro, nestled between Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria, decided they needed a formal organization to eat, drink and forge friendships.

academia padlot

The groups consists of men of different ages, political views and professions, but are united by their love for gastronomy. Their programs consist of a daily drink, monthly dinners and yearly trips. Renting a little bus, the group has traveled to Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Chianti, Amarone, Sauvignon, Gewurtz-Traminer and many more regions of Italy.

Mission Statement: The Academy of Padlòt is the free association of all those who, moved by a passion for learning, explore and transmission to future generations of all that concerns the good drink, want to put a glass of good wine in good company.

padlots

An article in their bylaw says: The “drunk Plenary” is the most solemn moment of the life of the Academy, where academics find themselves in harmony taste. Plenary decided that the drink is done on a weekly basis, on the day Thursday beginning at quarter past six p.m. (approximately). At that time the academicians can express themselves freely.

This group of men rarely prepare food for outside groups, preferring to cook for themselves and their close family and friends, but they cooked a special feast for us – their visiting friends from US and Canada.

The Padlots came marching into Palazzo Donati (a 8-bedroom villa where I was staying) prepared with an ambitious menu. I was certain they had done this before, for the dishes were well thought out and ingredients already sourced from local farms.

Padlot dinner menu

They started working hard in the kitchen making sauces, boiling fresh pasta, roasting vegetables and sautéing cuts of meat I had never seen before. They ensured we all had our glasses filled with Prosecco as we watched them cook and chit chatted in the kitchen.

Palazzo Donati kitchen

The first course or antipasti was simple yet flavorful creations: Charcuterie – salami and various cuts of meat; Bruschetta – toasted bread slices rubbed with  garlic, olive oil and salt; Crostini con Paté – sliced baguette with sausage and liver pate; and Fave e Formaggio Fresco – Fava beans with holiday cheese. They instructed us to peel raw Fava beans, dip them in salt and eat them with farmers cheese and bread. Torta pascuela, a traditional Easter cheese bread (made with gruyere, pecorino and romanesco) from Umbria was brought in for the special occasion.

Palazzo Donati has two kitchens – one for commercial use and the other a rustic open hearth with family style tables. We convened in they instructed us to peel raw Fava beans, dip them in salt and eat them with farmers cheese and bread. Torta pascuela, a traditional Easter cheese bread (made with gruyere, pecorino and romanesco) from Umbria was brought in for the special occasion.

padlot7

Meanwhile Lanfranco stirred Coradella – lamb’s liver with young garlic. This kidney and lungs combination looked pretty scary to me but I’m sure it was a carnivores delight. On another stovetop, they cooked Goletta con salvia e aceto o vino bianco – pig’s jowl with sage, vinegar and white wine. And a third tended to wild boar stew called Spezzatino di Cinghiale. We were definitely in for a manly meal!

lamb liver and kidney casserole

A local resident named Lina has supposedly won every tagliatelle pasta challenge in this part of the world, so a meal would be incomplete without trying it. It came through well together with the succulent guinea pig ragout and tomato sauce.

Fresh tagliatelle pasta in Le Marche

The open fire was well utilized. For sides, Italian red Chicory known as Radicchio rosso in graticola was grilled to where it was crispy, and whole potatoes wrapped in alumni foil were cooked in the ash from the firewood, rather than baked. This ash potato was called Patate Sotto il Fuoco.

grilled hearts of palm

The party got bigger once friends from the village joined in. The prosecco gave way to a fruity Rose, then a full bodied red wine, followed by after dinner Spumanti.

Palazzo Donati Italy We ate Italian-style, which meant the food never stopped coming and not accepting seconds was an insult to the chefs. Many of the nine men were posting photos on Facebook already, so I dared not offend their culinary skills (which by the way, were simply outstanding) or be publicly shunned on social media.

academia padlot men prepare dinner

Alas the dessert was a homemade Crostata prepared by by Elizio (one of the Padlot’s) wife. A delicately laced tart made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs and filled with an interesting combination of plums, elderberry and tomatoes played a sweet-tart melody in my mouth.

elderberry crostataNo family style Italian meal is complete without some singing. It was a real treat to sit around the table, singing old Italian tunes with a bunch of locals who were passionate about food and wine.

It is almost impossible to book this experience online through a travel agent, as Academia del Padlòt exclusively hosts guests of Palazzo Donati. The villa is available to rent throughout the year and one-week packages include cooking classes, language course, wine tasting, walking tours, one on one with local artists and of course, a dinner with the Padlots!

Street Food Scene of Quito

Ecuadorians like to eat all the time. They don’t follow strict rules about it either. There are no set breakfast, lunch or dinner hours, and most locals eat when they are hungry, which seems to be all day long. If you stroll through Old Quito during the hours of 10am and 4pm, you will see street vendors selling soups, hole-in-the-wall establishments making fresh tortillas, and casual cafes always packed with snackers. In fact, whatever formal sit-down restaurant there are in Quito, seem to cater mostly to visitors. The locals prefer cheap eats on the go that are satisfying and similar to home cooked meals.

Here are some of the sights from Quito’s street food scene…

My entire concept of “soup” changed after visiting Ecuador. Here you eat soup off the street. Vendors cook locro de papa (potato soup  with potatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, achiote and cheese), and calso de Manguera (made with pork intestines, stuffed with blood and rice), at home, carry it into the markets in buckets and sell it by the cup to busy workers. Every family has their own style of preparing these traditional Ecuadorian recipes. The regulars know which ones they favor and often wait for their lunch to arrive in the city. Potato salad and ceviche are other two famous bucket dishes found especially in the historic Cruz Verde (green cross) neighborhood.

street vendors sell soup in Quito

Seafood is another important ingredient in Ecuadorian cooking. With access to the Pacific Ocean, lakes and rivers, there is always an abundance of fresh shrimp, fish, clams, mussels and even oysters. Where else in the world can you stop for couple of oysters on the half shell on your way to the office?

street food oysters in Quito

Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Ecuador. Restaurants in Old Quito advertise lunch specials “Almuerzos” for $1-2, which include soup and traditional entrees such as Arroz con carne (rice with meat) or Fritadas (roasted pork with potatoes).

quito food 6

For your next backyard party remember that plantains are not always fried. You can grill them whole on charcoal till they are slightly charred. Makes for a delicious and healthy side dish.

quito food 5

Street food doesn’t alway have to be unhealthy. In Quito, you will find fruit vendors selling fresh cut watermelons, pineapples and whatever else is in season. Grab a cup of fruit cocktail snack just for a few pennies.

quito food 3

School kids line up at food stalls in the afternoon just to snack on Tortilla De Tiesto, a corn pancake made fresh to order. It is usually had with coffee or hot cocoa.

quito food

If Italians love gelato, Ecuadorians can beat them to Espumilla consumption any time of the day. It looks like ice cream, but is actually a dessert made with freshly whipped meringue cream and fruit extract, such as guava or passion fruit. The best part about it is that it doesn’t melt so street vendors sell it from their baskets, scooping out Espumilla in cups and cones.

quito food 7

If you want to go on a guided food tour of Quito, Metropolitan Touring offers one-day and half-day walking tours.

Read more about what to eat in Ecuador.