There are foods that our eyes tell us must certainly be mouth-wateringly delicious. They are beautiful, they are aromatic, and the ingredients are a collection of meats, vegetables, and spices that are familiar and nonthreatening. Then, there are other dishes assembled with ingredients or in a fashion that leaves even the most stalwart culinary adventurer skeptical.
My favorite is the Icelandic dish, Hákarl. It is fermented shark that has been buried to slowly rot for at least six months before being dug up for preparation and consumption. I always chuckle thinking about the long road of experimentation that led to that discovery. After all, there had to be some folks that dug up the shark at 2 months, 4 months, or 24 months to give it a go. The horror and comedy of it gives me goosebumps.
I have to admit that I haven’t tried Hákarl but, quite often I find that many of the New Nordic dishes end up embracing many of the same principles that led those early pioneers to sample Hákarl.
I’ve mentioned New Nordic, though now that more than a decade has passed since Noma launched the New Nordic movement, there is pressure to move away from the term simply embracing “Nordic” or even more specific niche terminology invented by a plethora of restaurants, many of which have been founded by Noma disciples. Each of these restaurants shares some common traits and approaches – a focus on local ingredients, freshness, a head nod to fusions, historic dishes, ways of prep, or hyper-local foods. Yet, each has distinctly unique approaches to how they assemble their menu, the meals they seek to inspire, and how they prepare dishes.
One other compelling hallmark of the Nordic culinary scene is its sense of camaraderie and collaboration. In an era where most chefs are glorified for being overly flamboyant hyper-competitive petulant tantrum-prone assholes, the Danish food scene is, as far as I can tell, extremely supportive, nurturing, and widely collaborative. Traits I find mirrors the organic and healthy nature of the food and which makes me feel good about supporting the chefs and their undertakings.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to sample three of Copenhagen’s Nordic restaurants. One of these visits was for work, one upon the invitation of Visit Denmark, and the third, a celebratory birthday dinner with a friend at a restaurant of my own choosing. These restaurants were Uformel (the new sibling to Formel B, Marv & Ben (Marrow and Bone…not two men’s names), and BROR (which means brother in Danish).
Given the focus of each of these restaurants on seasonal ingredients, it was interesting to see and experience commonalities between many of the plates. Things that stood out in particular were the use of burned cucumber and mushrooms. The burned cucumber was tasty and good across the board with a fairly similar taste, though each had their own unique way of preparing the cucumber.…
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.
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.
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.
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!
Following a wonderful walking tour of Orvieto we found ourselves checking into la Penisola country resort and restaurant. The resort is situated on a small peninsula along the shore of Lake Corbara in the heart of Umbria. It is located about halfway between Todi and Orvieto. A wonderful place to rest after a long and exhausting day.
The drive to the hotel had been short but pleasurable. Slightly footsore from a day spent wandering the city and my mind overflowing with history and rich cultural imagery, we wound our way through the countryside passing old manor houses and rolling vineyards.
The hotel was located just across a narrow bridge opposite an old olive orchard. The lake served as a beautiful, reflective backdrop abruptly, but not unattractively, cut across by the low lip of the nearby dam.
After casually dumping my backpacks in my room and hastily checking e-mail I felt a glimmer of life still to be had in head and feet. Eager to enjoy the misty haze rising off the lake as the sun set I snagged my camera, hopped a fence and made my way back down by the road. I can’t remember the songs that were playing, only that they were vintage and from another era. The road was quiet, and the sunset combined with the empty road and blooming flowers left me at the mercy of the music which dragged me out of time and place.
While most roads are often a blight on nature and little more than ugly paved charcoal lines smeared unattractively across the face of the countryside, I’ve always felt that there are moments, special moments, where they can be something more. Roads are like the lines on a map or a door left slightly ajar. They are portals, conveyors that transport us towards new adventures and far off places while simultaneously bringing the exotic to our doorstep.
As I waded into a sea of yellow blossoms and carefully lowered myself until my face and shoulders were floating on a sea of yellow turned gold by the last rays of sunset I found myself grateful the road was there. With each photo I snapped it added to the charm, to the moment, and to the full bouquet of sensation.
Each piece of the whole added to the ambiance and captured my mood, but it was in the combined stimulation of each of my senses that I found myself swept away. The gentle tingle of a soft breeze teasing my hair, the potent aroma of the flowers and grass as I knelt, the charming notes of a long dead performer crooning in my ears, and then the chorus of color, lines, and shapes that filled my eyes and burned themselves into my synapses. This was Italy. This was life.
As the sun slipped below the rim of the dam and the light gently faded I found myself slowly return and re-sync to the world around me. My throat was dry which reminded me that dinner would no doubt start soon. After washing up I made my way to the dinner reception that the resort a mixture of local business folks, and political functionaries had assembled for us. As I entered the dining room I was pleasantly surprised to find a gentleman playing a mixture of traditional and modern pieces on a narrow-bodied fiberglass violin.
A beautiful table had been set and I found myself taking stock of my appetite. It had been a full day, an active day, but also a day that was already full of food. After the amazing three hour lunch I had enjoyed earlier in the day I knew that the meal they had planned would likely be a bit of a challenge to tackle. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the stark contrast. When traveling as a budget backpacker the never-ending series of monotonous kebabs, gyros and pasta that make up one’s diet is crushing. When traveling as a blogger and guest of the region the opposite holds true. Overwhelmed not by monotony and small portions, but course after course of delicious, rich Italian food.
Never one to neglect the opportunity to embrace local food or turn away heartfelt hospitality I set to the delightful task at hand. As we gathered, there was a delightful mixture of Italian meats and cheeses set out, including a crispy suckling pig! The wild boar sausage, salami, and suckling pig were fantastic and could have easily been a meal in and of themselves. The gentlemen serving us were warmhearted characters and set to their task with attention and passion. The display and presentation was wonderful, with a mixture of local ingredients and objects from the surrounding countryside displayed in simple but elegant form.
As the last stragglers made their way into the room we filled our glasses with wine and gathered around so our hosts could introduce the region, the food, the wine, and the olive oil. Make sure not to miss my post about the olive oil tasting lesson we enjoyed. Through it all the local wine flowed freely and I’ll admit that most of us were likely a bit tipsy by the time we assumed our seats.
The meal started on a rather intense note with a fried pike and chub embellished with crispy zucchini flowers. Which is to say, an interesting mixture of chunks of fish, zucchini, and whole fried minnows. While somewhat common around the Mediterranean and in other parts of the world, the presence of whole minnows as part of a meal is quite unusual by American standards. In the past I had tried them sparingly, mostly in Spain, as a curiosity. Those attempts had been met with mixed success as I found that most of the fish I had tried had tended to be far too strongly flavored for my taste. The overpowering fish taste combined with the exotic visual nature of the dishes had left me somewhat hesitant to dive into the small mound of friend fish I was presented with.
But…when near Rome, do as the Umbrians do…right? So, I tentatively took one of the minnows by its battered tail and mouthed it. To my delight, the overwhelming wave of fishiness I had encountered in the past was nowhere to be found. Instead I was greeted by a wonderful mild fish taste with just enough salt to set off the flavor. In short, they were delicious! In short order I’d quickly leveled what had previously looked like a small mountain and likely relaxed visibly as the part of the meal I had been somewhat concerned about had turned out to be quite positive. I’m not sure if it was the minnows used, that the oil was obviously quite fresh and pure, or the wonderful preparation, but I was quite impressed. The pike fillets were also quite good, and again they were mild, fresh, and not over cooked.
Located as we were beside a freshwater lake, the theme for the evening was local and fresh with a fish theme. The next course was, “A nest of water and flour Umbrichelli with perch pomodorino tomato and basil ragu”. After the slightly salty flavor of the previous dish, the salsa and ragu provided a wonderful sweet and slightly spicy contrast. The perch was fresh, had a wonderful taste and was perfectly cooked. It had subtle hints of garlic, a slight taste of olive oil, and the aroma of fresh tomatoes, a pinch of chili pepper and basil.
By the start of our third course we were also well into our third local wine for the evening. With a slight rose hue taking to most of the group’s cheeks, voices grew louder, gestures began to become slightly more exaggerated and the group transitioned from talking exclusively about the fish, to discussing the region, life, travel adventures and similar stories. For the third course the chef left behind fish, temporarily, and instead offered another local delight – a fantastic black truffle tagliatelle. The tagliatelle used local black truffles harvested in the nearby town of Norcia for a delicious plate that did a wonderful job emphasizing the earthy flavor of the truffles. Of the different plates served over the course of the meal, I think that this was likely my favorite while the first course was the most fun. The tagliatelle’s slightly nutty flavor and the buttery rich, olive oil and salt undertones of the pasta combined beautifully.
The tagliatelle and wine that had been paired with it soon gave way to the next course…. and the next wine. This was “Coregone in a a potato and rosemary shell on a piano bean sauce”. The Coregone is a type of (I believe) whitefish found in Europe and one of the local fish that is common in Lake Corbara. The fish had a mild taste that was wonderfully accented by the rosemary bean cream. The circular shapes you can see in the photo above are actually thin potato slices where were laid out and cooked on top of the Coregone fillet. These did a lot to keep the fish moist and to help lock in the flavor.
I hate to say it, but by the final course I was so full I could barely move and likely was incapable of properly appreciating the course. Despite this the rich scent of the “Roast Guinea-Fowl with traditional Umbrian stew and rustic crostone bread” left me little choice. Served with a side of parboiled asparagus salad the guinea-fowl was delicious. Cooked skin-on with a rich crust of salt, spices and bacon, each bite of the bird was an explosion of flavor. The wild asparagus was properly salted and had a slight hint of mint to set the flavor off. Both went well together and despite my better judgement I found myself clearing my 5th and final plate. The meal was prepared by the chef in charge of the resort’s Life School: Live Italian Food Experience and I have to admit, if I had the time, I definitely would have enjoyed a lesson or two.
The remainder of the evening was a delightful mixture of wine, music and conversation rounding out the 2.5-hour-long meal and what had been a fantastic and absolutely jam-packed taste of what Umbria has to offer. However, with an early morning ahead of us we all found our way to bed with full stomachs and heavily-laden eyelids. I suppose the glow of the wine in our cheeks helped as well.
The city of Stavanger is an interesting one. Located at nearly the same latitude as the Orkney Islands in Scotland, it’s situated on the inward side of a large peninsula on the southwestern coast of Norway. The city is the third largest in Norway, though still serves as a home to fewer than 300,000 people and is home to a large portion of the country’s oil fleet.
Most of the city’s old town sits on one of two small hills which partially surround the old harbor – a picturesque area full of small cafes, parked ferry boats, and a few masted sailing vessels. In addition to the cafes the harbor opens up on a large square (which is on a bit of a hill), a small 4 or 5 station fish market, and the entrance to an old shopping mall. From the harbor it’s easy to see the large suspension bridge which connects the city of Stavanger proper with a series of small islands which serve as home to some of the city’s more affluent population. You can see part of the bridge as well as the masts of small sailboats, and the warehouse-turned-residential buildings in the photo above.
To my surprise it turned out that Stavanger was hosting the Conoco Phillips world beach volleyball championships. They’d brought in tons of sand and set up six full-sized beach volleyball courts along one side of the harbor, in addition to constructing a small free standing stadium around a final match beach/field. I’m not much of a beach volleyball fan, but was excited to have stumbled onto the event. In sharing some of the names in attendance with friends who play, it turned out that the event was actually fairly major and had a lot of the most well known women’s international players/teams in attendance. What made the event that much better was the open (free) access which was available to the six practice/elimination courts which almost all had games going constantly throughout the day. The events drew huge crowds which filled the harbor area and added to the level and sense of energy in the air. Not to mention the general appeal of a bunch of attractive international volleyball players wandering around the city.
A brief 5 minute walk from the old harbor, up a small hill, past a squat old cathedral and back down towards sea level takes you to a large pond which rests directly in front of the rail/bus station and is surrounded by a variety of shops, hotels, and other like-kind establishments. The pond is pretty, if not overly beautiful, and serves as a home to ducks, fountains and the occasional swan.
The city’s smaller side streets are typically beautiful cobblestone walkways lined by an odd assortment of heartily built structures. The town’s wet climate is reflected in the green vegetation and moss which can be found everywhere – including growing between the cobblestones. I found myself pleasantly strolling through the city’s quiet side streets surrounded by flowers – some planted, some seemingly wild – which line the city’s streets and decorate the town’s residential buildings.
From the rail/bus station I decided to brave one of the city’s hills. While not a significant climb, I’ll confess to being a bit lazy. The walk left me somewhat winded and my shins burning as I wound up the steep cobblestone streets. Despite a little huffing and puffing the climb was well worth it. When I finally reached the top I quickly found a small hole between two pitched slate rooftops and enjoyed the view: the bridge, bay and one of the nearby islands was about as picturesque as a highly urban landscape can be.
As I meandered through the city streets I found myself continually drawn towards the bridge. After all it was large, no doubt offered a unique view of the city and….well…it was there and let’s face it, that’s often more than enough reason in and of itself. Before long my feet found their way to the ramp leading up to the pedestrian walkway across the bridge. Dodging the occasional bicyclist I walked about 1/2 of the way out onto the bridge then paused and looked back at Stavanger. The view was one of a prominent cathedral, pointy pitched roofs, a few converted warehouses, and brought to mind the mental image of an old city given life in an even older story – a city near slumber, late at night, lit by oil powered lamp light and echoing with the quiet rattle of wagon wheels bouncing across cobblestone streets.
An odd visual to have in the middle of the day on a bright sunny day? Perhaps – but it brought a smile to my face and some how, some way, seemed to fit the city’s skyline.
From the bridge I continued my aimless meandering, wrapping back down towards the harbor, but not before winding my way through the city’s thriving shopping district which is full of middle-upper class shops and ritzy street cafes. As I wound my way up side alleys and down main streets I was constantly entertained by the large number of odd murals that decorate walls and street corners throughout the city – most done in a graffiti style, but showing far more care, time, and artistry than random graffiti scribble. Most were bizarre, but creative and fun in their quirkiness.
Tired, footsore, and feeling more than a little starved I eventually decided it was time to track down a supermarket, pick up some relatively cheap food (though still ridiculously priced) and then head home to the Hospihostelhotel. Watch the clip above for a look at the meal (sorry about the image/color quality, I was having issues with a lens at the time).
Let me just say, that shopping in foreign countries can be difficult. Especially when you’re in a supermarket and the local language is anything but easily recognizable. As I stood in front of the cooler I couldn’t help but shrug, sigh, and scratch my head as I grabbed what looked like pre-cooked and shelled shrimp tails and what I assumed was pre-cooked BBQ chicken. The whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if I was going to poison myself by accidentally buying something that wasn’t completely cooked (like the chicken). Luckily, the extent of my surprise came in the form of the “shrimp” I’d bought. It was only after getting the container open, draining off the water and tasting a few that I google translated the words on the lid. Shrimp? Not so fast. Turns out they were crawfish tails. The good news was crawfish was equally acceptable and delicious as shrimp in my book. Still, I couldn’t help but let out a hearty laugh at myself. It’s the little adventures that stick out…and this was no exception.
The final meal consisted of several small pieces of bread, a coke, diced barbecued chicken, arctic fish roe/caviar, and pre-cooked/salted crawfish tails. The end result was an odd, but strangely complimentary assortment of tastes that left me stuffed and content – even though I’d faced more than a few surprises.
With a full belly and tired legs I crawled into bed, checked my e-mail, and watched a bit of Norwegian TV which surprisingly was mostly in English with Norwegian subtitles. The following day promised an adventure – it was time to say goodbye to Stavanger and hello to Bergen.
The following morning we struck camp; laughing at the slow, stiff movements and pained, hungover looks that plagued our group. The tents proved every bit as difficult to break down as they had been to put up leading to small frustrated mutterings and no small shortage of lighthearted teasing.
We paused briefly for breakfast, then began transferring bags, sheets, tents and bodies back onto the cramped confines of the Ragga Queen before saying goodbye to the Island and its surprising wealth of local wild life.
As the boat gently drifted away from the Island I was once again taken by its small size, pristine beauty and the unique flavor of the adventure. As you might imagine, a plethora of movie references and great cinematic moments filtered through my mind – always an entertaining narrative and realization: that epiphany that you’re living the adventure often delivered as fairytale across the world’s silver screens.
The day was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky. The sun kept us warm and left us relishing each opportunity that arise to pause and dive into the water to fish, snorkel, hunt for conch, or just generally relax and cool off.
As we neared our first snorkeling stop I was relieved. The weather was fantastic, the group with the exception of one bratty girl, was an absolute delight and the adventure was unfolding nicely. I’m always wary of any sort of extended duration tour. While something like the Raggamuffin tour tends to only attracting the more laid back, younger and heartier traveler – all it takes is one or two people to really turn what should be a 3-9 day adventure with new found friends into an absolute nightmare. As you can tell from the photo above things were rather tight and personal space was at a premium. That said, everyone took it in stride and worked to chip in.
Our first stop was along a steep wall along the reef. As I first jumped in and looked down, I felt my stomach surge towards my throat. The water below me was some 20-30 feet deep on a steep incline, drifting quickly into a dark blue abyss. The seafloor was covered in coral, fans and schools of fish and I couldn’t help but think I stood a good chance of seeing an open water shark.
Allowing my nerves to settle, I began to explore the area. The sea wall offered a great opportunity to see a different type of reef life. Some of the fish were different, the corals were slightly different and the general feel of the place had its own unique flavor. As we snorkeled around the area I made my way along the wall watching rays and schools of fish go about their daily business. Eventually, I made a wide loop that took me into the shallow water – that which was 4-10 feet deep – and towards the areas where the reef broke free from the sea. There, in the shallower water I was greeted by large spiny sea urchins, vibrantly colored, albeit smaller, coral dwelling species of fish and even a lazy sea turtle enjoying the open sea grass. The video I’ve included above is shown in near chronological order, and while you may recognize it from my previous post – it covers all 3 days.
Tired and hungry I made my way back to the boat for lunch. After a quick meal, it was time to set off again. Sail up, bodies sprawled across the decks, the subtle sight of soft white lines decorating our bodies where we’d missed a spot of sunscreen.
Our next stop was similar. This time, however, it was a series of small sea mounts that rose from the ocean floor (about 30-40 feet) to a depth of some 10 feet below the surface. The mounts were small but packed with coral and sea life.
Once again we struggled into our fins, held our breaths and jumped over the side before fanning out in all directions to explore. Some were armed with spear guns, others with cameras. As we slowly explored, we found ourselves pointing off into the blue, motioning, and trying to speak through snorkel filled mouths. All the while sharing little discoveries – a large school of 5 or 6 barracuda, a lazy sea turtle taking a nap on the ocean floor or a particularly beautiful fish.
It was during a foray in towards one of the larger mounts – one with significantly shallower water – that I came across the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen. You’ll notice him in the video I posted above, though the size doesn’t really come across. Easily four feet in length the monster oozed predatory confidence as it slowly, ever so slowly drifted through the shallow water.
Eager to get video and see it up close, I followed. All the while wondering….was it truly a good idea? After all, the plastic housing for my camera reflected the glint of sunlight and was lined in bright dive orange rubber, looking more like a giant fishing lure than anything else. Luckily, neither I nor the Barracuda listened to the nagging voice in the back of my head – leaving us both to watch each other warily, enjoying the moment.
From there it was back onto the boat for more fishing, sunbathing and drifting. Pausing periodically to hunt for Conch, Lobster and to give the captain an opportunity to put his spear-gun to work. We feasted on fresh lobster, conch and fish ceviche, fresh fruit and cup after cup of fruit punch before eventually arriving at our second destination: Tobacco Caye.
The small (albeit significantly larger than our last) island was home to a series of docks, a small forest of large coconut trees, small restaurant, series of cabanas and small circular beach bar.
We quickly set to setting up our tents in a small clear space in the middle of the island, before grabbing a Belkin – Belize’s delicious local beer – and setting off to explore the island. Some 5 minutes later we found ourselves back at the dock eager to snorkel off the dock.
The area surrounding the island itself was sheltered by the reef behind it and offered a large expanse of smooth shallow water sea grass which stretched out and away from the island on the remaining 3 sides. The grass itself attracted large schools of fish and a large number of rays and the incredible looking eagle rays which are black with white spots, a long streaming tail and in many ways look like a manta ray. The eagle rays are an absolute delight to watch – not only are they graceful and beautiful, but they periodically leap free of the water, throwing themselves several feet into the air.
As with the day before, the sunset on Tobacco Caye was every bit as incredible. This time framed by sailboats, a small panga, and picturesque palm trees. We ate a delicious meal with fish and shrimp before settling in for another night of stories, drinks and jokes before crawling into bed. Stiff and exhausted from a long day swimming and relaxing in the sun.
The following morning greeted us with more blue skies and warm weather. After breaking down our tents and re-packing the boat we set off once more. This time on the final leg of our trip to Placencia.
The trip itself was fairly lazy. We paused several more times for seafood and caught a few fish by line. With each stop the number of us that jumped overboard to explore diminished until there were only 3 or 4 of us left that dove in at every opportunity. We swam, laughed and relaxed for the remainder of the day before arriving in Placencia about 3 or 4PM. We disembarked and set to the task of finding accommodation.
It was Christmas eve and the town was quiet, although not completely shuttered. Before long I found a small budget hotel with a room for $40 BZD ($20USD) a night. To my delight the room had 3 beds, and a private bathroom. The shower didn’t offer warm water (not unusual in Belize), and consisted of a PVC pipe with a small turn nozzle. It was more than I needed.
I settled in, read my book, grabbed an evening meal and then dozed contentedly. Life was good.