Southeast Asia – What I Expected vs. What I Experienced

I felt the grinding sound of the landing gear lowering below my feet. That hydraulic rumble that reminds me you’re most of the way through your descent and about to return to terra firma. The palms of my hands were starting to sweat and I felt a rock in my stomach.  Despite previous trips, my last foray into a wildly different culture had been a couple years previous and done with family. This time, I was alone and couldn’t help by second guess my decision.

Exploring Koh Lanta

As the ground raced up to greet me, I looked out over Ho Chi Minh’s skyline.  It was strange…dry….brown…it almost looked familiar.  In fact, it reminded me of landing in Mexico. The buildings, their angularity, their coloration and the semi-organized chaos.

The Four Island Tour

Then with a bump, we made contact. The fear and second guessing subsided, replaced by excitement and acceptance. No matter if I’d made a good choice or not, what would follow would be roughly 19 days of exploration, wandering, and discover.

Lost in Bangkok - Thailand

Though elements of Ho Chi Minh continued to remind me of parts of Mexico – in no small part due to the mixture of humidity, heat, and oft-present sun – Vietnam quickly differentiated itself.  In this post I’ll share a few random observations that stuck out for me as I made my way through the trip, tasting Vietnam, skipping through Cambodia, and swimming just off the beaches of Southern Thailand.

Dear Restaurateur Your Fancy Sorbet Sucks

Based in Copenhagen, I’ve found myself seated in one of the world’s hotbeds for culinary innovation and inspiration over the last few years. The rise of first New Nordic and later Nordic Cuisine has been swift, powerful, and delicious. The farm-to-table movement and the re-discovery and integration of traditional ways of preserving foods, cuts of meats, and greens has also been a delightful infusion of fresh flavors and diverse culinary footprints.

It’s great. It’s delicious. I love it.

Except, that is. That high end restaurants: Nordic, New Nordic, or otherwise, continue to all make the same tongue abusing, mouth assaulting mistake.

I’m lactose intolerant. It’s annoying. It’s not severe, which means I can handle butter and milk when it is used to cook baked goods. What I can’t handle is ice cream, many cheeses, cheesecake or anything slathered in lots of cream. I’m not alone. There are a ton of us (25% in the US, 65% of people globally). Especially in the millennial generation where, perhaps thanks to our own choices or those of our parents who embraced alternatives to milk in our teens, the problem is particularly prevalent.We’re the silent majority. One largely ignored, perhaps because it’s inconvenient and a bit embarrassing to say, “No, I won’t get hives and no my throat isn’t likely to block off my breathing – I’ll just get explosive diarrhea so nauseatingly painful that I may also vomit in the process”.

Of course, there are pills. They help. But they’re far from reliable. They’re also inconvenient.

What does this have to do with fine dining?

London on a Budget – Day Two – 36 Hours to Explore

36 hours in London, a budget of 150 GBP and a mission to re-discover the best parts of the city. This is part two in my two part look at London. Learn more about the challenge behind this trip, issued by Tune Hotels, in part one as well as a brief overview of my long-standing mixed relationship with the flagship of the British Empire.

The Pride Pooch

My second day in London got a late start. As a general rule of thumb, I’m a B person. This means I prefer late nights and late mornings to early evenings and early starts. So, Tune’s late-checkout was perfect.  My flight back to Copenhagen departed from London Gatwick at 20:35 PM. That left me the majority of the day to relax and explore before catching my train back to the airport around 5:30PM.

The Tower of London and Tower Bridge


London is a Mecca for travel writing talent, so when Dylan of The Traveling Editor and founder of The Ripple Movement heard I’d be in town, he invited me to join him for a quick chat about travel and local’s guide through Soho for lunch.  The day started with a light rain – the type that I’ve become accustomed to in Copenhagen, and which some might say defines London.  You know the type – enough to bespeckle your glasses, but not enough to merit an umbrella or running for the nearest doorway.

The London Underground

The plan was to meet Dylan at Oxford Circus shortly after 12:30. The trip from Liverpool Street Station was effortless and took no more than 15 minutes. Planning to jump around town more than I ultimately would I opted for a full-day metro pass (12 GBP). This, ultimately, was a 9 GBP mistake as I once again only utilized the metro once during the day…not good…but, hindsight is 20/20, right? Live and learn.

My New Nordic Conversion at BROR

It’s not often that you find yourself sitting in a restaurant staring at the menu and feeling like you’re proof reading the description for a porno.  I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater but I quickly realized that my meal at BROR was going to strip me of more than one type of virginity.  With bull’s balls, mackerel sperm, cod’s lips, cod’s cheeks, and all sorts of special sauces it was clear that I was in for what, as with any first time, was bound to either be a delightfully pleasurably undertaking or an awkwardly memorable and unpleasant experience.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

It’s delicious, it’s distinctly Nordic, it’s relatively healthy, and it’s surprisingly more complicated than one would think.  What is it?  It’s Danish Smørrebrød or “Smorrebrod”.  In the past I’ve written about local Danish cuisine and more specifically the every-day variety of Danish smørrebrød while suggesting several local hole-in-the-wall venues around Copenhagen where cheap and delicious smørrebrød could be found. Today I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum – fancy Danish Smørrebrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

In recent years Nordic cuisine has exploded onto the international stage led by restaurants such as Copenhagen’s world famous Noma restaurant.  These foods are known for using fresh, local ingredients in innovative ways to create flavorful plates that are both a delight to taste and a feast for the eyes.  One incarnation of this push towards fancy Nordic food has been a re-visit of one of the staples of the Danish diet.  In so doing, modern high end restaurants have re-worked smørrebrød while capitalizing on the food’s inherent inclination towards color, attractive appearance, and diverse use of ingredients.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

I recently had the opportunity while in Aalborg to sample a mixture of re-imagined modern smørrebrød at Utzon Restauraunt.  The venue is situated in a gorgeous center that overlooks the city’s fjord while providing a great modern-Danish backdrop.  The food served consisted of beautifully colored and portioned pieces of smørrebrød which used ingredients such as steak tartare, herring, various fish fillets, giant capers, beats, giant asparagus, shrimp, fish eggs, pickles, dill, fresh onions, Danish remoulade, and of course the cornerstone of it all – Danish rugbrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

While all of the smørrebrød we sampled was fantastic, I think the most unusual was the steak tartare which had raw ground beef and used fluffy white bread in place of the traditional dark rugbrød. Accompanied by sauce, onions, pickles, giant capers, potato chips and greens it had a light, fresh, flavor which nicely accompanied the meat without being overpowering.  During previous meals I had encountered more basic versions of the other variations of smørrebrød we tried, but in the case of the steak tartare it was the first time I’ve seen raw meat used. While not for the feint of heart, I can say I eagerly await my next opportunity to dive into a similar variation on traditional smørrebrød.

You can find my previous post on budget smørrebrød in Copenhagen here.  Have you had any experiences with smørrebrød?  I’d love to hear what you thought of it!

The Polar Bear Adventure: Part 1

Frozen Churchill

You know things are either off to a brilliant, or ill fated start when you learn that your charter flight which flew at the crack of dawn was the only Churchill bound flight that left the airport. As a bit of an obnoxious optimist, and in light of the minimal turbulence we were experiencing, I tossed it into the brilliant category and stared out my window….daring/hoping the northern lights to come out. Sadly they didn’t, but the early morning quickly gave way to a pleasant twilight and then dawn as we made the 2 hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba.  The dull roar of the historic but well maintained Nolinor Convair 580 we were on added to the mystique of the whole experience. The plane was comfy, well maintained and safe. It brought back distant memories of flying on another 580 as a young kid in the late 80s – what was likely the first flight I ever took. The roar of the engines were loud and pulsed the throb of adventure into us.  At the same time I also watched with a chuckle as condensation formed in the back of the plane and then froze onto the inside of the wall around the rear exit. The stewardesses frowned at it, scraping some of it off to fiddle with but otherwise were unconcerned.

Frozen Churchill


After touching down in Churchill it was a quick wait while our transportation arrived:  An old converted Ford school bus that had braved more than a few cold Churchill winters.  One side was completely slicked in a frozen layer of ice.  Apparently freezing rain had struck the night before effectively re-painting half the vehicle in an icy coat of white. One large piece that had started to slide down the front windshield before freezing in place remained transfixed to the glass.   To say it was cold would be an understatement.  To say it was freezing painfully obvious.

Frozen Churchill

The wind blasted and buffeted us as the windows quickly fogged up.  We’d made it.  We were in Churchill.  The weather was far from ideal, but our guide assured us that the forecast looked promising.  A day and a half of cutting wind and blowing snow and then poof – sunny skies, polar bears, and grand adventures!

Crashed Airplane, Churchill

Before long we’d passed the corpse of an old cargo plane that misjudged the runway and made a dramatic, if safe, crash landing a decade or two before.  Then it was down and along the coast of the Hudson Bay which was, at this point, a churning mass of frozen waves and icy tidal flats.  Another brief pause to learn about the geological nature of the area and then in to town to settle into our rooms.

World Famous Gypsy's Bakery

If you ask people about Churchill, they’ll inevitably mention Gypsy’s.  They may call themselves a bakery, but in truth they’re a great little restaurant that has the feel of a roadside cafe that just happens to be combined with overflowing trays of baked goods.  The menu meanders through a wide mixture of options ranging from steak to soup to pasta.  It’s one of the only places to eat out in Churchill. It’s also one of the central social hubs which means you’ll find yourself sitting next to locals and enjoying a hearty mixture of people.

Eating in Churchill

The setup was simple – go in, order whatever you want, it was all included in the tour price. Given how frustrating a component of many organized tours the eating part can be, from getting stranded in over priced tourist cafes to flashy food that looks good on a plate, tastes like cardboard and leaves you starving, it was nice to see how the company we were with, Frontiers North, handled our meals. While Gypsy’s food may not win them a Michelin star, it was a lot better than I expected.  Especially considering how difficult it was to get things into Churchill and how remote we were.

Churchill Train Station

We spent the majority of the afternoon and the following morning wandering the town. This included stops at the local Eskimo Museum and a walk through a cool exhibit about the history of Hudson Bay and the Churchill region at the local train station.

Eating in Churchill

The rest of our time was spent ice-sailing along the streets as we were blown from shop to shop, desperately trying to avoid falling into a heap and laughing hysterically at the awkward arm swinging, yelps of alarm, and near-disasters that went with it. Dinner was served at the Tundra Inn Restaurant which had a great menu that included things like Bison, Elk, and local fish, cheap wine and local beer.  I really enjoyed the food and once again found myself impressed by the way the whole thing was handled.

Curling Game

One of my favorite accidental discoveries while wandering Churchill occurred in the recreation complex. A sprawling government building built for a city that was expected to grow significantly, but didn’t.  The end result? A beautiful complex that serves as a mini-Churchill within the heart of the city.  Eager to hide from the brutal weather, we ducked into the building and quickly proceeded to stumble on a curling match.  The locals welcomed us warmly into the heated viewing box that overlooks the ice, and we paused enjoying a drink, and fighting the urge to dive into the steaming bowl of Chili they had set up next to the bar.  I’ve watched curling on TV from time to time, and was familiar with the basics, but had never seen it played live.   It’s a surprisingly fun sport to watch though, I’m still unsure on how enticed I am to actually give it a try. Too much work with a broom.

The weather made further exploration of Churchill difficult.  The town is an interesting place with a rich history that dates back to and played a major role in the formation and exploration of Canada.  With a year-round population of about 900 and a tourist season population that likely doubles that, it’s a city forced to wear a wide assortment of hats. There was more to it than I expected, but it’s still a small working town at heart.

Churchill Train Station

Logistics, Cost and Pricing

There are two ways to get into Churchill.  You can fly, which takes between two to two and a half hours or you can take the train which will take about 44 hours and has a reputation for experiencing delays.  The flights range in cost between $800-$1,600.  As I write this post, searching for a flight during polar bear season 2013 is $1,289 USD.  A similar glance at the Via Rail page (do your own search) returns a ticket price of $369 CAD for an economy class ticket.  It’s important to book your flight well in advance if planning the trip on your own as tour groups tend to reserve large blocks during peak season.  Or, of course, you can do what I did and join a tour. I was blown away by the quality, service, and general experience provided by Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy, so definitely keep them in mind as an option.

Accommodation within Churchill also fills up quickly and needs to be reserved well in advance.  The rates that I’ve heard quoted for independent travelers were about $250 a night for a standard room during high season.  That being said, TripAdvisor returned several results for $150 in January, so it may be possible to find cheaper rooms if you book far enough in advance.

Dog sled tours – The group that we did it with was Wapusk Adventures.  I was really impressed by the way they treated their dogs, and how knowledgeable their team was.   They offer dog sledding in October and November and the cost is $90 per person.  They also offer bird watching tours between May and September.

Polar Bear Safaris – There are two dominant companies servicing the Wapusk National Park which is along the Hudson Bay.  These are Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North who I did my trip with and Great White Bear.  The price is typically about $400 a day per person, which may sound like a lot but is comparable to similar Safari’s I’ve done in Africa which for context can range from $350-850 USD a day.  This is assuming that you’re trying to structure the tour on your own and not doing one of their packages.  It’s also important to keep in mind that if you do day trips, you have a 1.5 hour commute to get out to where the polar bears like to relax.  Thus about 3 hours of your day are spent in transit (which doesn’t mean you won’t see things, but it’s less likely).  These trips also can have up to 40 people on them (in one vehicle) while many of the packaged tours have caps at 20.

I was REALLY impressed by Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North.  Our guide was fantastic and really put in an incredible effort.  As a blogger and photographer the fact that both he and our driver were excellent photographers was also a huge asset.  They knew what made a good shot, how to read the bears and to work with the light/snow.  They offered advice on how to best photograph the bears and took several shots of their own during the trip.  I was also able to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge which made a major difference in the experiences we had, and what we saw.  The bears were most active early and late in the evening and a lot of our bear watching occurred within 1/4 mile of the mobile lodge.   The Tundra Buggy lodge is located deep inside Wapusk National Park and right in the heart of the area all of the day-tours use for their safari circuit.  Great White Bear maintains their own lodge, but it’s about 45 minutes to an hour’s Tundra Buggy Crawl closer to the edge of the park.  While I imagine both companies are excellent and will provide a great experience, the fact that National Geographic and Polar Bears International have repeatedly used Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North really says a lot about the quality of the service they offer.

Also, keep in mind that there are other more expensive custom lodges in the area that offer top-end polar bear viewing opportunities.  Similarly, Churchill has more to offer than just dog sledding and polar bear tours.  You can visit Churchill to view the northern lights, beluga whales, and to go birding.  Frontiers North has an assortment of different options worth exploring.

I’d like to remind you all that I visited Churchill as a guest of Frontiers North and the Canadian Tourism Commission through a trip I won. As such, I was not responsible for my own booking, and did not deal with the majority of the logistics or cost process.  The information I’ve included in this post is based on after-the-fact research, and conversations I had while on the trip.  It is provided as a general guideline, but you’ll need to do your own research to find out the latest in availability, pricing, and options.

THIS IS PART I – STAY TUNED FOR PART II (Dog Sledding) AND PART III (The Polar Bear Safari).

10 Steps for Mastering the Art of Olive Oil Tasting

Eating in Umbria

Wine tasting has become an integral part of travel and recreational culture.  It is something most of us hunger to enjoy and which offers a complex set of fixed and casual rules and norms which can be more than a little intimidating.  The ability to decipher, identify, and properly sample various types of wine has even become a cultural indicator of alleged sophistication and class.  With its famed wines Italy serves as home to a plethora of vineyards and opportunities to taste wine.  However, you may be surprised to learn that there is a second, equally enjoyable type of tasting available.  On par in fame and reputation, as well as heritage, with Italy’s rich wines is the nation’s olive oil.  While each town, city, and even family may have their own line of wine, the same is often true of olive oil.

If you’re like many Americans, Canadians (and others), myself included, you’ve probably just assumed that the “virgin” and “extra virgin” labels on olive oil at the super market were marketing speak tied to quality similar to how other foods might be marked as organic.  However, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that this isn’t the case.  Each of these terms has meaning, and if the advertising is accurate (often it may not be), can have a significant impact on the taste, color, and feel of the olive oil.  These classifications will impact how strong the flavor of the oil is, its rich color, and its scent.  All of which can have a surprising impact when the oil is paired with or used in the preparation of other foods.

You can see my first attempt at sampling olive oil in the video below.  I’ve included the individual steps in written form immediately after for quick and easy reference. You’ll note at the end of the video that the taste of the mid-strength oil I was sampling was quite strong.  Strong enough, in fact, that the taste actually had a completely unexpected (though pleasant) burn to it – enough to make me cough, and to make my eyes water. A hearty thank you to fellow travel blogger Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings for playing camera man.

How to Taste Olive Oil

  1. Select an assortment of olive oils based on different strength and potency.
  2. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a tasting cup (pictured above).
  3. Cup it completely in your hands and warm it, allowing the warmth to activate the oil.
  4. Make sure that when you cup the glass in your hands you cover the top trapping the aromatic scent of the oil in.
  5. Lift your hand slightly allowing just enough space for you to dip your nose to your palms and inhale the aroma of the oil.  Take a moment to enjoy the scents you’ll discover.
  6. Take a sip of the oil, not too large, but also not too small.  You want enough to get a proper taste.
  7. Take the oil into your mouth and swish it around slightly coating the inside of your mouth.
  8. Now, the next part feels a bit odd but is important. Part your lips slightly with the oil in the front of your mouth and draw the air through and over the oil.  Allow it to bubble.  You should make a loud sipping/sucking noise.  This stage is where you’ll start to taste the complex flavors of the olive oil and where you’ll start to feel a burn from the stronger oils.
  9. Pass the oil from the back of your tongue to the front of your lips once again and note the flavor.
  10. Swallow some or all of the oil.

Types of Olive Oil

  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The good stuff. This type of olive oil has 1% acidity or less and comes from the first pressing of the olives. Though extra virgin oil can be found in most marketplaces there are growing concerns about the lack of standardization in the industry.
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Similar to Extra-Virgin, Virgin Olive Oil typically has an acidity of 1.5% and is made from olives which are slightly more ripe.
  • Olive Oil: Standard olive oil comes from the 2nd pressing or in some cases chemically refined olive oil. This type of olive oil is of a milder taste than virgin olive oil. This can be called pure or commercial oil.
  • Refined Olive Oil: Typically made from virgin olive oil this oil has little taste, an acidity of 3% or more and a less than ideal flavor and smell.
  • Mixed Olive Oil: Best avoided, these are made by mixing olive and pomace (recycled solid remains after previous pressing). They also often use a chemical extraction process which is counter-productive and undermines the benefits of naturally pressed olive oil.
  • Light & Extra Light Olive Oil: Deceptively these are not more diet friendly versions of olive oil. Rather, they just include some of the lowest quality combinations of chemically processed olive oils.

There’s much more depth to olive oil than I ever would have imagined. Of the oils provided for us to sample, I was absolutely shocked at how different the taste was from oil to oil. As with wine there is a wealth of terminology and steps for classifying the different flavors and sensations, but I’ll leave that for a future post. As someone who has always loved olive oil and uses it regularly this experience offered me an insight into an important, and previously overlooked element in many of my favorite meals.

This video was recorded while a number of fellow travel bloggers and I were guests at La Penisola, a beautiful country resort and restaurant along the shores of Lago di Corbara in Baschi, Umbria. While there they provided a most gracious introduction to the art of olive oil tasting as an introduction to their newly launched cooking classes which they’re calling Life School.