Japan, the food experience – 1 – Tokyo

I am back!!

I know you were all worried, but holidays came for me as well. And what holidays they were! I was able to roam around Japan for 3 weeks! I will try and tell you everything about those 3 weeks, as always focused on food (plus trains, and Japanese nerdness).
Let’s go then!

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After a very long trip (VERY long trip consisting of a jump to Amsterdam followed by an inexplicable jump to… Paris and a 12 hour flight to Tokyo Haneda) we arrived at our Airbnb in Asakusa. We dropped everything and decided to go exploring to beat the jetdav-lag. We went to the Sensō-ji, a very famous temple in the area, and then to dinner, where I experienced my first Japanese toilet. Of course, it was a fail. Sergeant Lunch and Lieutenant Cookie teased me for days after I headed back to our table defeated by the toilet and unable to flush it (It had no visible handles and at that moment, I could not  figure out what all the buttons meant. Or else, I was just very tired). Most importantly, we had eel! Eel with rice (unagi), which was delicious.

And as a final treat for the day, we discovered a traditional dance festival near the river; we enjoyed the show before heading back for a well deserved 12 hours sleep.

The following day we started our explorations in earnest. Our routine always included breakfast bought at a local 7-Eleven, because as everyone knows, I can’t function without my coffee and something to eat. The status of Japanese convenience store pastries is good, although I must report that, since we usually bought them at night for the day after, the choice was limited.
Anyway, on the second day we explored Electric Town, Akihabara. We actually did not explore much, but we can say that we experienced it in the form of trying a lot of videogames in the neighbourhood’s arcades. 😀
I wish we had all those machines here in Europe. There was literally everything one could think of, from drum machines to dance games (old school ones and very modern davones) to a lot of rhythm games. One of the most popular was the “Washing Machine” one (I now discovered that it was called Mai-Mai, but our name is better and it gives a very clear description of the thing :D) to which we all became very attached. I don’t have to say how bad we were at everything, particularly in comparison with the locals, whose abilities with these things are almost supernatural.
As a snack, we had a lovely cheese cake, from a place called Pablo. Japanese people seem to be obsessed with cheese cakes, for whatever reason.
We then went to Shibuya, to see the famous crossing (and try and not strangle all the idiots filming themselves going from one side of the street to the other) and to have our dinner. Lieutenant Cookie pointed to us this lovely place, called Ichi-Ban-Kan (or something similar, I share with you the location on Google, so you can find it). Here we had a lovely and very cheap meal, destined to be repeated twice more. We really loved the “old men’s bar” atmosphere and the seemingly low quality food. The gyozas we had there were the best!

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Our second day in the capital dawned very, very hot. After what seemed like an eternal morning spent in the Ueno park, we went to Harajuku, where we were directed by the Lonely Planet to a gyoza place. The Japanese customers could be counted on the fingers of one hand, but the food was very nice. It is worth noticing that in Japan food is very very cheap. We rarely spent more than a tenner each for a meal, often including either soft drinks or beer.
After lunch we walked through the crazy Takeshita Dori, then went to the governmentdav tower for a (free) view of the city, where we had a weird ice cream from the 7-Eleven (tasted like… yuzu? Probably? I am not 100% sure 🙂 ), and finally we headed towards Shinjuku, where we really, really wanted to try some karaoke.
After failing miserably to find one, and with our feet sore with all the walking, we headed towards the only place we knew was not going to fail us, the HUB. This is an “English” pub chain that you can find in the major cities. It is still full of locals, and it is worth to notice that they have a happy hour that finishes at 7 pm which allows you to have very (very!) cheap drinks (we are talking about less than 3 euros for a Gin and Tonic!). In Japan beer is often more expensive that a mixed drink or a cocktail. Of course, this became very quickly our point of reference during our stay in Osaka and Tokyo (more of this in the following chapters).
After drowning our tiredness in a couple of Salty Dogs (my cocktail of reference), we managed to find a place for our dinner. This time, it was an okonomiyaki. I was probably very tired and I did not think the world of it. I didn’t even take a picture of it!

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Our last day of our first leg in Tokyo, we went to the Tsukiji Market, only to find it closed for a local holiday. We managed anyway to have a decent (not exceptional, but decent) lunch at a sushi place, a restaurant part of a very famous chain, called Sushizanmai. Idav just love the man in their signs, welcoming you to dine with them 😀
I ate some sea urchin, some cod roe and some raw squid, which I did not like at all! Not always the experiments come up right 😉
In the afternoon, we walked around the fancy Ginza and headed to the Tokyo train station to buy our train tickets for Yufuin, our trip for the following day. The station itself is massive and at its core you will find a lovely old building, surrounded by modern structures. Train station in Japan are endless (or so it seems).
Our last dinner in Tokyo was lovely tempura, after which we were all ready to head back to our apartment to get ready for our first train trip to Kyushu.

 


Back to Madrid 2 – ENGLISH

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Boy oh boy I am busy… Well, admittedly  last weekend was spent only watching movies and preparing cupcakes, but still. We are now close enough to the wedding that I have a proper to-do list for it (involving baked goods, the dress and such are taken care of!). This Thursday the baking course is over ( written and practical tests) and after that I am a free woman :). Come to me nail varnish! But let’s now go back to Madrid, ever so briefly!

I left you after our lovely dinner at Mad Café. We definitely needed energy for the following day…

Our third full day in the capital was spent walking a LOT. We woke up and had a lovely breakfast at Cookies and Dreams. Yes, this is Alma’s cupcakes shop! Alma! My mentor and Yoda, Alma! Hi Alma, I am here, waving at you from the Internet!!!! One day I will meet her 🙂 (she smiled, crazily). We had a lovely brownie and cheesecake and a couple of cupcakes, a coffee, and off we went.

It was Saint Jordi, or World Book Day. In Catalunya, it’s a tradition to buy a book and a rose for your loved ones and to honour it, we bought books and roses for ourselves. Here a snapshot of the outcome of this expedition:

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(for whatever reason, in the hostel room the light was very heavenly)

After that, we started our descent to Madrid Río. This park was built on top of one of the busiest ring roads in Madrid. The ring road now lies underneath the massive green area that was built on the banks of the Manzanares, Madrid’s river. On one end of it, we have Príncipe Pío, a train station / shopping centre. At the other end, we have Legazpi and the Matadero (an abattoir made exposition centre / hipster central). In the middle some kilometres of green spaces, “the beach” (fountains open only during summer where the poor madrileños go to fight the heat off), terraced bars and playgrounds. Madrid Río is neighbours another huge park, Casa de Campo. Casa de Campo is so big that it contains a zoo and an amusement park and it used to be THE place to find prostitutes in Madrid (apart from Calle Montera, straight in the city centre, of course). Now it’s closed to traffic and you can only enter on foot or on your bike. You have little hills, and mountain bike routes, and in the middle of it, you can forget that you are in Madrid. There is also a lake, which is currently being cleaned, close to Madrid Río’s entrance. You can easily hike there and have a beer at a table overlooking the water.

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We walked all the way to Matadero, stopping every now and then for refreshments (read: beer), taking a picture with the good old Calderón (if you are a football fan, it’s Atlético de Madrid’s former stadium) and enjoying the sunshine. By then we were very tired. We still managed to walk all the way up (again! Madrid is not a plain city, in any sense) to Huertas, where we found a bar and had some huevos rotos before collapsing on our bed.

Big day the one after that! Not from a touristic point of view, though. We started off with some lovely tostas con tomate (you may call them bruschettas for breakfast, but I like them better, since the tomato is not diced but grated and you assemble them yourself) and we went for a quick walk in the Retiro.

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Fun fact: in the Retiro you will find one of the few statues of the devil as the fallen angel Lucifer (wings and all). On we went and had a walk (not too much of a walk, though, since the day before we had been already good enough) around the Salamanca neighbourhood, home of the posh and the expensive. It’s very easy to get around, since the layout of the area is grid-like (thank you, Marquis of Salamanca). We were not there to admire the posh and the expensive, though, we were there for a concert! Arcade Fire were playing in the WiZink arena (Real Madrid’s basketball arena) that evening, so very soon we were sitting down in the nice square in front of the building, listening in surreal conversations happening all around us. The concert was amazing, thank you for asking. We had also had plenty of refreshments, which added to the excitement.

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There is no need to look at our sad selves on the morning after, leaving Madrid, hungover, having a burger at 8 in the morning at the airport. There is really no need for that.

Just go to Madrid and experience first-hand their welcoming attitude, the food, the bars, the strolls. You will love it 🙂


Back to Madrid 1 – ENGLISH

davIt’s very difficult for me to write a short post (or even two) about Madrid.
I lived there for ten years and I consider myself to be a “cat” (that’s how they call people from Madrid, “gato”. Of course I am not, since in order to be called gato, you have to be 3rd generation madrileño.). My formative years were spent there and I just love the place, as anyone who knows me could tell you. I never shut up about it. 🙂
We were in Madrid for 5 days, and I loved every second of it; I dragged poor Sergeant Lunch here and there and I was somehow able to avoid using the Metro for the entire trip (in Madrid even the Metro is bonito, have I ever told you? :D)
Sorry in advance for not having too many pictures, but maybe I can offer you some tips as a adoptive Madrileña.
We stayed in an Airbnb in Calle Fuencarral, (here), which is very nice if you don’t mind some noise  (it’s a pedestrian area and Spanish people stay out until late, bear that in mind). Now the good thing about staying there (apart from feeling weird because that building used to be a weird sort of market, a staple of the neighbourhood, now converted into a Decathlon) is that you are bang in the centre. From there you can walk anywhere, which we did.
On day one we stayed in the centre, just strolling around Calle Mayor, Plazuela de Santiago, Plaza Conde de Barajas and Plaza de Santa Ana, eating and drinking our way through the day, which is the Spanish way of enjoying life. All but Plaza de Santa Ana, which is a fairly big square, are lovely little corners of the city centre where you won’t find many tourists. Particularly the Plazuela de Santiago, at the end of the pedestrian Calle de Santiago, a little street just in front of the area where you can find the famous Mercado de San Miguel, is one of my favourite, quiet spots for a beer. davIf you want to visit a very Spanish bar, you have to go to Mesón Viña. It’s in a little street very close to Plaza de Callao (so again, bang in the city centre). On this little street you will find at least 4 bars, all of the “casposo” style (you could call them “old men’s bars”, if you wish). They look rotten, but people serving you are (usually) very nice, and food is (extremely) cheap and (again, usually) more than decent. With less than 20 eur we had plenty of cañas and 4 “raciones” to share between us. Sharing is essential in Spain, in every restaurant it will be considered normal to order food “para compartir” (to share). The lovely bartender gave us, besides our food, tapas with each caña we ordered. So much so that I had to refuse them twice (to Lunch’s bewilderment). We even got a slap on the shoulder each when they brought us a lomo sandwich. Which, anywhere in the world, is clearly a sign of “I like these davtwo, they are enjoying their stay”. The food is of course nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s nice, and Spanish, and typical. Bread, potatoes, eggs, you will always find comfort in dishes containing these ingredients.  That night, in order to digest the food, we went for a stroll to the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain by Egypt. There is a nice view over the massive park of Casa de Campo, and on a warm spring night, it’s nice to sit out there listening to some dude playing versions of random songs. We then proceeded to go to José Alfredo, a cocktail bar near Plaza de la Luna. It’s so small you could miss it (Sgt. Lunch actually missed it when he was in Madrid the first time, without me, his experienced and gorgeous guide 😉 ). We made friends with the Italian barista, who prepared for us the most amazing cocktails we’ve had in a long time. One was a “special” Margarita with blue Curaçao and chilli, the other one, the one that really blew our minds, was a sweet whiskey and Laphroaig with lime and habanero oil… Just amazing!
To finish our night on a good note we went to Moloko, one of the few remaining “garitos” (“bar de copas”, we could call them just clubs), that survived the purge in Malasaña, the indie/alternative neighbourhood. Of course, around 2.30 Sergeant Lunch had to drag me home. I was unhappy at that moment, very happy the day after. Well, after I recovered from the hungover, that is.

Sunday was actually a very quiet day, since I wanted to see a friend of mine. We still walked a lot though, making our way all the way to the Canal area and Cuatro Caminos. It’s not a place you want to go to on a short trip, but it’s where my friend lives, and you can still find some good restaurants and bars. There is a nice residential area in between, where we stopped on our way back. In the Chamberí neighbourhood you can find the Anden Cero, a former Metro station now a Museum. Unfortunately, it was temporarily closed when we got there so we ended up going for beers instead at Plaza de Olavide. It is a very nice and closed to traffic square with playgrounds in the middle, where Spanish parents let their kids roam free while they drink and chat away. I prefer this lively square to thecrumble.pngchaos of La Latina, where we went for one before going for dinner. La Latina is a “hip”, “young” area (it’s never good when you see too many quotation marks around adjectives), but it’s also full of vultures fighting to steal your seat outside a bar and tables too close to cars to be able to enjoy being in the sun at 26 degrees. We stayed for one in Plaza de Olavide and we stayed for one in a bar in La Latina. Sergeant Lunch, the official visitor, said he would go back to the first one and never to the second one. But if you are “hip”, and “young”, then you will enjoy La Latina for sure 🙂
Our lovely Sunday finished with a lovely burger. It was one of the two concessions we made to non-Spanish food during our visit. Mad Café is a place I miss a lot, with its short menu, nice beers and nice dessert. We had nachos, burgers and a crumble that made me very happy, and very sleepy.
Next week, day 3 and 4, or “the day of the big long walk” and “the day of the concert”.


Weekend in Manchester

I hope you all had a lovely Easter! Let’s not delve too much into the weather subject, since I know it’s been bad basically everywhere (everywhere that matters to me, at least). I spent the weekend in Manchester and I am now ready to share my impressions of the city (mostly of its food, as always).

It was a weekend trip and its purpose was, primarily, football related.
A very noisy group of ladies, all suited up with the same shirt, welcomed us at the Cork Airport’s pub at 7 in the morning. I then discovered that a big percentage of people going to the Manchester-Liverpool area can be attributed to marriage or football related activities.
The spirits (pun intended) were high from early in the morning, yay! 😉

After a smooth trip, we dropped our bags at the hotel reception and made our way for the Old Trafford.

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[Brief digression here: Sergeant Lunch is a Man United fan and it turns out that I am too, now. I have three clubs of which I am a big fan of, Inter from my native Italy, Deportivo de la Coruña from Spain, and MUFC. If you asked me which one gives us most satisfaction at the moment, I would find it difficult to give you an answer in less than an hour. That’s the upside of living in different places I suppose 🙂 ]

I loved everything about that old stadium, and I loved to be there with the fans at the pub before and after the game (we won, in case you were wondering). My travel companions, Sergeant Lunch and Mayor Bennies know the city fairly well after years going to the matches, so I admit I hadn’t prepared at all for the trip, relying on them for everything. Saturday’s dinner was a Spanish feast in a nice tapas place, La Viña (not Juan Mata’s father, football lovers). We ate so much, and 99% of the food was so nice… I felt like a pint of Mahou Cinco Estrellas to honour the memory of my adoptive city, Madrid, to wash down the lovely chorizo and the dreadful tortilla. Do not order tortilla there, if you don’t want to be disappointed. The foto is slightly blurry because Sergeant Lunch did not want to be left behind while we were eating so it was taken in a hurry… 😉

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Sunday was our day to actually go and discover the city. Well, for me to discover the city, for the others to have a walk. Feeling somehow in debt with them, who were very kind as to show me around, I decided to ask Google the following question: “Best places to have breakfast in Manchester”. You should have known that was going to happen, Google. Thanks to that question, we managed to find a whole neighbourhood, the Northern Quarter, where there was a café every three hipster steps. We had a lovely savoury breakfast in Common (the nearby Home Sweet Home was too full) and then, after five minutes, feeling like we had walked enough already, we stopped at the Mackie Mayor food court.

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Mainly we wanted to have a look at the lovely job that was done there to refurbish the place, but we ended up having a coffee and a dessert each. I there discovered the existence of  friands (thank you Wolf House Coffee!!! ❤ ) and now I really, really, want to find a good recipe for those.

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After the second pit stop, we managed to actually take a walk. I must say I really liked Manchester. I love cities with character, and here you find one all right. From Industrial Revolution history, to football, to music, it’s a city that under that gruff appearance has got a lot to offer to different categories of tourists. And it’s cheap, way cheaper than London.

During the walk we were of course drawn by a little market where we were presented with an all-Manchester-Liverpool-musical stall (owned by a copycat Noel Gallagher), a “queer beer” stall, and this:

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Bunzels? Really, Manchester?! 😀

It was a very full and interesting day, finished with a nice dinner and an uneventful visit at the Temple underground bar (too crowded, we had a looked and went straight back to the hotel).

On Monday, we were going to come back. Of course I did not let the opportunity pass and I found another place to have breakfast before leaving. At quarter to eleven, there was a queue outside Moose Coffee. Thank you, Saint Google, once more you pointed me on the right direction… 😉

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I had lovely poached eggs on top o a ton of veggies and a delicious cappuccino. My companions had similar savoury dishes, and they were also very happy, and very nicely full afterwards.

I like to say “Always start a trip with a full belly”. Or wait, was that Bilbo Baggins?!

 

 


A night in Florence – ENGLISH

One of the reasons why I was so quiet recently is that I had to go on a job related field trip to Florence.
I was not very happy to do that, I hate this kind of professional obligations, particularly if this involves having to talk to sales people. This was the sales kick-off of the year, so I thought: “greeeeat” (the heavy irony of my tone should be clear).
I was moaning and complaining that I had to go to Florence, and I got back some snarky remarks: “How are you complaining?! You are going to fucking Florence!”.  I was not, I was going to stay put in a hotel for three days. Stuck with SALES PEOPLE.
Off I went, then. Fortunately, I was traveling with Ale, whose company I really enjoy. Prior to being an office rat like me, he was in the army! Surely, I thought, if he managed to survive in Afghanistan, I will be all right with him in Florence. I was right. He is one of those ones never affected by anything, so my level of stress throughout these few days was always very low.
We managed to arrive spot on time at the Amerigo Vespucci airport and without even dropping the bag we went to the convention hotel. We barely survived the afternoon, particularly when an English lady started to blabber about chairs and dolphins and giraffes trying to make the (ITALIAN) SALES understand what “inclusion” is through some IMG_20180129_215832.jpgsort of very weird metaphoric performance. As you can imagine, that didn’t go down well with them. 

We had woken at 4 AM, and we had been spinning around all day. I have a vague memory of going back to the hotel, taking a shower, and going back out for dinner.
Now, that dinner is the only reason why I am writing this post. At some point I will write a long and detailed review of my experiences in Tuscany, focused particularly on the food.
Now I will just limit myself and talk about that one dinner, that dinner that made the whole trip worth the pain in the butt of sharing a moment in space and time with Sales people (eck).
We went to this lovely Trattoria. A trattoria is like a restaurant, but with no pretension to be called that. It is supposed to serve very nice food at an also nice price. This one followed the standard of the best trattorias.
No-nonsense waiters, no- nonsense owners, a lot of embarrassing quotes from their clients. It is called Tito.  IMG_20180129_203602.jpg
I might now mention that being an Italian in Florence is not exactly the same as being a non-Italian. It happens anywhere but particularly when you go to very touristic places; you don’t get the tourist treatment. Not entirely at least. They know they can’t rob you because you understand them. So they just try to rob you a little bit, something barely noticeable.
In this case, we proudly stepped in on the arm of not one, but two Florentine women. Nothing could go wrong! And it did not.
I could not take too many pictures, because I was too busy eating, but we had:
A couple of big plates with some “affettati” (ham, salame, etc.) and cheese (with their corresponding honey).
Some marinated garlic with sundried tomatoes. This was just delicious, and incredibly, it didn’t dance the conga in our stomachs and mouths all night.
A plate of little “bruschette” (Toasted Tuscan bread) with some delicious spreads that I can’t quite remember (on the menu I can read Liver, ragu’, parsley, tomato, sounds about right).
There might have been something else, but I think we contained ourselves with these few starters (laughs an evil laugh).As main, both me and ale had the Sliced beef with artichokes, or the famous “tagliata” (we didn’t feel brave enough for the Fiorentina steak).  Even on the English menu they specify: ONLY SERVED RARE. Please find below evidence that they don’t mess around with their meat (or “ciccia”, as they call it).

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“You are kindly asked to respect the tradition and NOT ask your MEAT WELL DONE!!! … WE ARE NOT GOING TO DO IT ANYWAY!!!”

We were so full we couldn’t even have dessert, so we just had some lovely, homemade, limoncello.
After that we were basically ready for bed.
Since the hotel was in the centre (ish), we decided to go home walking through the city center, having a look at that Duomo of theirs before curling up in bed watching the Spanish program during which they decide which crap artist to send to Eurovision.
I will leave you then with some bits of wisdom from the customers of the Trattoria: 

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“My corner of the sky is a triangle of hair” (you really don’t want to know about this one, but in Italian at least it rhymes)
“Life is only one, and in your case it’s already too much!”
“In vino Limoncello veritas”
“The pussy is like the right of way, you always have to give it” (another subtle and deeply Italian adage that you really don’t want to stop thinking about too much)
“Save a plant, eat a vegan” (finally one that makes sense)

Happy weekend!



Portugal, the gastronomic experience (ENGLISH) – 1

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Last week I wasn’t here so I couldn’t post anything. Where was I, you ask? In Portugal, my dears!
If you know me, you know how much I love this country. I discovered it living in Spain, when with a couple of friends we went to Sagres for a camping trip (first and last of my life). The beauty of the country struck me back then. That, and its amazing and incredibly underrated gastronomy.

Back to last week. The official excuse for my trip was a visit to my friend Marisa, who lives near Aveiro. The unofficial reason was that of showing Sergeant Lunch Porto and to eat like there was going to be no tomorrow. All the abovementioned objectives were completed with flying colours and what follows is a recollection of our gastronomic experience.

Please be advised, you won’t find here many touristic tips, just a description of what we ate, and my impression of that. Also, this first part will be much more predictable. Porto is lovely but hopefully, by now, their gastronomic treasures are well known. 🙂

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